If you spend any time at all on Facebook, you know there are some things that are a regular feature: fake pictures and hoax stories. Some of these things are the so outlandish, it’s amazing that anyone could actually believe them. But people fall for them time after time. And they re-post the same thing on their own Facebook page/wall, thereby ensuring that the misinformation continues. But do you know why this type of thing gets started in the first place? Because someone makes money from it.
Here’s the formula (don’t worry if you don’t understand it immediately; I’ll explain):
1. Create a Facebook fan page (it can be about a specific topic, or just a general one)
2. Generate traffic to this page – first through Facebook advertising, then viral marketing
3. When the page gets lots of fans/Likes (as in more than 10k), sell it
But then, there’s the obvious question: why would anyone buy a Facebook page? How does it have any value?
To answer that question, we need to look at the money-making process in reverse.
The way a lot of websites make money is through what are called affiliate programs. An affiliate program means that you can sell a company’s products on your website, and you get a commission for every sale.
So let’s say there’s a website where people can go to bet on football. You apply to be an affiliate of that website. Then you make a football-related website of your own, and you put ads on your site that link to the betting site. When someone clicks on one of those ads, goes to the betting website, and creates an account, you get a percentage of what they spend. If the gambler sets up an account with a deposit of $1000, and you make a 30% commission, you just made $300.
Sounds great, right? Just make a simple website about football, and make a bunch of money! Well, it’s not quite that easy. You don’t make any money unless people go to your website. In fact, you need a LOT of people to go to your website because only a very small percentage of them will click on the ads.
So… your problem is that you need to be able to contact a large number of people and get them to visit your website. How do you do that? In the old days, you could buy a list of email addresses and just spam 10,000 inboxes with your message. Can’t do that now (at least not easily).
But what if you had a Facebook fan page that was, for example, about the game of poker? You could have stories about the pro players, videos of tournaments, all kinds of stuff. If you could somehow get that Facebook page to have 10,000 fans, that means you have a large group of people that will see whatever you post on that page. In a sense, you have “control” over that group of fans. You could make a post every once in a while with a link to your football betting website, and a lot of those people would click through and visit your site. And a certain percentage will click on the ad and you make money.
So… now the problem is how do you get a Facebook page that has 10,000 fans? One way is that you could buy one. Can you see now that a Facebook fan page with lots of fans has value? That’s why there are posts like these on online forums:
That’s the motivation for people to build these pages and get lots of likes and shares – so they can sell them. There’s even a whole website devoted to buying and selling Facebook pages (sellyourfanpage.com):
So finally, the last issue is… how do you get lots of people to like and share your content? That’s where the fake pictures and hoaxes come into play.
The people that are good at this figured out long ago that the key is to post something that generates a lot of emotion. Positive or negative emotion doesn’t matter – it just has to be something that will get people’s attention and spur them to action. Of course, the desired action is to like it and share it with all of their friends as well.
Here are some of the images that are designed to get people either mad enough or happy enough to share with their Facebook friends:
This one doesn’t rely on rage or laughter to make people share it – just curiosity. It works – over 3000 shares, 26k likes:
How low will these guys go? This exploits a seriously ill child just to build up likes and shares for a page:
Here’s one that capitalizes on the recent bombing at the Boston Marathon (the story next to the picture is false of course, but sympathetic people that don’t research it will often automatically share it):
Here’s one that is so obviously fake, but it will often be accompanied by a message that says, “Not sure if this is true or not, but worth a try!” (trust me, it’s not worth a try) –
This one is one of the most-shared hoax photos on Facebook. This guy held up a “winning” lottery ticket and asked people to share the photo, and he would send a million dollars to a random person that shared it. Of course, the picture was photoshopped because the ticket was not really a winner. However, the photo was shared over 2 million times:
For pictures, really any subject matter will do. Political issues such as gun control or abortion will usually work nicely to get people fired up.
Oh, and in case you were wondering why I included the picture of Morgan Freeman at the top of this post – a widely-shared post is one that claims that he has died. He is still very much alive, but these “announcements” about his death continue to circulate because people continue to share things without checking to see if they are really true. Sad thing is, when he does actually pass away, no one will believe it.
What should you do?
If you see one of these stupid things on Facebook, just delete it from your news feed. You could try to tell the person that posted it that it’s fake, but that’s usually an exercise in futility. You could also just give them a link to this page and hopefully they will become more aware.
If you see something on Facebook that sounds crazy, but you think it might actually be true, it’s still almost certainly false. In any event, do not Like or Share it until you have researched it and confirmed that it is actually true. These will be very rare. It’s usually safer to read something on Facebook, assume it’s false, and move on.