Most of the attention focused on Facebook right now is aimed at the Cambridge Analytica leak, where a shadowy Trump-affiliated organization got hold of personal data on 50 million Facebook users and targeted them with ads and fake news during the 2016 election. But this saga is just one example of how Facebook’s targeting features could be mis-used. As a piece by Bloomberg points out, shady affiliate marketers have been mining the social network for dubious clicks for years, and making millions of dollars by doing so.
The piece goes inside a community of digital grifters and con-men, who use social networks like Facebook, Twitter and Instagram to con people out of their money with the offer of untold riches, self-help scams and bogus health remedies. Author Zeke Faux (whose last name seems particularly appropriate in this context) writes about a conference in Berlin last year where Facebook had a large presence. The conference that was supposed to be about traditional marketing, but was filled with shysters and click-farmers:
The Berlin conference was hosted by an online forum called Stack That Money, but a newcomer could be forgiven for wondering if it was somehow sponsored by Facebook Inc. Saleswomen from the company held court onstage, introducing speakers and moderating panel discussions. After the show, Facebook representatives flew to Ibiza on a plane rented by Stack That Money to party with some of the top affiliates… Officially, the Berlin conference was for aboveboard marketing, but the attendees I spoke to dropped that pretense after the mildest questioning. Some even walked around wearing hats that said “farmin’,” promoting a service that sells fake Facebook accounts.
Facebook has taken pains to point out that it doesn’t want this kind of business on the network, and says it has been working hard to get rid of scammers. Rob Leathern, who joined Facebook in 2017 as part of an effort to purge the network of affiliate marketers and similar low-life advertisers, tells Bloomberg that the days when people like Gryn could make millions with dubious clicks are over. “We are working hard to get these people off the platform. They may get away with it for a while, but the party’s not going to last,” he says.
That could be easier said than done, however, given the head start that Facebook gave to the scammers and their supporters. Faux spends part of the piece profiling one of the men at the heart of this affiliate scam network — a Polish entrepreneur named Robert Gryn, who worked his way up through Stack That Money, then developed software that hundreds of affiliate scammers use to leverage Facebook’s ad targeting machine.
Only a few years ago, Gryn was just another user posting on Stack That Money. Now, at 31, he’s one of the wealthiest men in Poland, with a net worth estimated by Forbes at $180 million. On Instagram, he posts pictures of himself flying on private jets, spearfishing, flexing his abs, and thinking deep thoughts. Last year he posed for the cover of Puls Biznesu, a Polish financial newspaper, with his face, neck, and ears painted gold. Gryn’s prominent cheekbones, toned biceps and forearms, perfectly gelled pompadour, and practiced smile lend him a resemblance to his favorite movie character: Patrick Bateman, the murderous investment banker played by Christian Bale in American Psycho.
Tracking down ads that were placed by Russian trolls and aimed at voters during the 2016 election is complicated, but it might actually be easier than rooting out the kind of scams Bloomberg describes. When their accounts are blocked or banned, affiliate link traders simply set up new ones under other plausible-sounding names, and start again. And the same tools that allowed the Russian trolls to target voters give marketers the ability to push their ads to a vast network of gullible users for pennies per click. Read the whole piece here.