Harvard University is the most popular higher education institution on Facebook. It has 3.3 million “likes.” This isn’t surprising, it’s one of the most famous universities worldwide and it’s widely regarded as one of the best, perhaps the best.
But according to Lenny Teytelman, founder of ZappyLab, a company that makes apps for research scientists, about 3 million of those likes are probably fakes, or likes generated by fake Facebook users who are trying to make their Facebook accounts look legit by populating them with bogus interests.
We contacted Harvard and Facebook for comment. Harvard did not respond; Facebook declined comment.
Of course, Harvard is an international name and it is not unexpected that Harvard would attract likes globally. It’s not improbable that those likes could be real. Notably, Teytelman doesn’t offer proof that the likes are fake — so let’s take this with a pinch of salt.
Teytelman’s claim is based on the fact many of the people who say they like Harvard live nowhere near Harvard. In fact, the most engaged Harvard fans on Facebook are from Dhaka, the capital of Bangladesh. Dhaka is the notorious home of many click farms who sell fake likes for money.
So Teytelman decided to compare Harvard’s Facebook fan base with some other institutions, and found this discrepancy (see chart above): Most universities have a few hundred thousand likes from people who live near their campuses — exactly what you’d expect. But the institutions that are most popular have millions of fans that live nowhere near the campus. Teytelman says he thinks Harvard’s likes are probably fake:
… The most stunning example here is Harvard with 3.3 million “likes”. Probably about three million of these are fakes. I just hope they did not pay for this, … If the cost per “like” is similar to ours ($50-$100 per thousand), Harvard might have paid Facebook between $US150,000-$300,000 for fake likes.
Of course, there is a tautology here: In order to attract millions of fans, by definition a huge portion of them will come from far away, not nearby. That doesn’t mean they are fake.
Nonetheless, it raises a problem that many social media marketers have when they’re trying to attract a large, high-quality audience of followers on Facebook: It’s not easy to figure out which likes are legit and which are not.
Facebook is fighting a running battle against fake accounts on its network. (Facebook click farms control fake accounts in order to sell bogus likes to unsuspecting companies who are advertising on Facebook in the hopes of increasing their popularity.) Only around 1% of all Facebook accounts are “abusive,” or fake, Facebook reported said in its last annual report. But Facebook has more than 1 billion members, so 1% equals about 1 million fake accounts, liking everything they see.
Low-quality likes from far away places is a problem on Facebook that primarily affects unsophisticated advertisers: If you run ads on Facebook indiscriminately, targeting anyone in any country, then you’re likely to attract clicks from some pretty irrelevant accounts all over the globe. That may be what happened to Harvard — it doesn’t necessarily have fake likes, just irrelevant ones. The reason Teytelman suspects Harvard’s likes are fake is the Dhaka factor: “If the ads are not targeted and running all over the world, why would they skew to Dhaka, Bangladesh for 4/5 universities that clearly advertised (Oxford, Cambridge, Harvard, Univ. of the People)?” he tells Business Insider.
The other problem with running ad campaigns that have indiscriminate geographic targeting is that your ads are likely to show up in the news feed of a fake-like click farm. That click farm may be generating fake likes for another unsuspecting client. In order to make its army of fake accounts look real (so they don’t get banned from Facebook), it will have those accounts click on things that real people might like — and clicking on other people’s ads is one way to do this quickly. There’s a great video explaining this weird phenomenon here.
Harvard made a push to become the biggest university on Facebook back in 2011. Its president celebrated reaching the first 1 million likes with a video:
“We are so pleased to be the first university to hit one million Facebook fans,” said Harvard’s President Drew Faust in a thank you video (embedded below). “We’re also so pleased that networks like this — some grown here at Harvard — are uniting millions more people all around the globe.”
For comparison, Yale at the time had only 49,000 likes. Since then, Yale’s page has become popular, too. That college now has 877,000 likes and its most engaged users are from Addis Ababa in Ethiopia — not well-known as Eli territory.
Harvard will probably survive its fake like problem. But the issue isn’t trivial for companies that do a lot of marketing through Facebook: They can end up with hundreds of thousands of followers who are fake, or irrelevant. At that point it becomes impossible for the company to figure out how interested its real fans are in their posts — real fan engagement gets drowned out by noise.
Fake likes have a distorting effect on the perceived popularity of universities, Teytelman claims. The best example is the way Cambodia’s Limkokwing University is somehow more popular — on Facebook, anyway — than Cambridge: