If you’ve logged onto Facebook in the past few months to find Johnny Depp pushing junk-news websites or “love” hocking banking services on your activity feed, you’re looking at one of the newest social media scams. Scammers have hijacked unclaimed Facebook interest pages, usurping their followers and pushing revenue-generating advertisements through them, which you are made to see.
With every view you give these ads, companies pay these bad actors, not knowing the unscrupulous way they’ve gotten your attention.
How It Works (As Far As We Know)
When setting up a Facebook page and filling out the interest sections listing your favorite books, shows, sports, and movies, you’re likely to skim your mind for your most recent interests or experiences and write them in the appropriate subject box, separating the entries with a comma. (Sports: Manchester United, Boston Red Socks, Green Bay Packers).
Though it is natural and convenient to fill the information this way, doing so does not associate the interest with the actual team’s Facebook presence. What it actually does is group that interest with others who have done the same thing, and that collective becomes an unassociated “interest page.”
These bad actors have figured out how to gain control of these incidental interest pages. Lamely develop them to give the appearance of legitimacy, and then push ads on to their thousands of pre-arranged followers. And these amounts? They can be substantial.
For example, an unofficial page for Islam that was taken over had nearly two million followers. In some cases, they’ve even combined unrelated interest pages, pushing memberships of these unwitting groups well into the millions, which is why you could have had a comedian you’ve never heard of filling your feed with dairy adverts.
What Is An Interest Page?
Any unofficial group with a collective focus on a person, place, organization, thing, or idea can be an interest page. There’s no limit to what an interest page can dedicate itself to–literally, thousands of meme pages can attest to that.
Anybody can establish an interest page and, depending on the popularity of the page’s focus and the administrative abilities of the owner, it can become heavily followed over time.
Facebook hasn’t been clear about how these scammers were able to commandeer such large swaths of users. They’ve only said that a “bug” had been exploited without any specifications as to the nature of this bug or how long the scam has been going on.
What’s Been Done About It?
The known, affected pages have been removed and the scammers responsible for the problem have been demoted, presumably not allowing them to reestablish their scam under the same profile. Whether this stops them from simply making a new profile and rehashing the scam is unclear.
Can It Happen Again?
Facebook has not spoken to whether the bug that made these manipulations possible has been dealt with, but they are aware of the vulnerability and have taken measures to punish the scammers taking part so far, limiting their ability to conduct similar scams in the future.
How To Protect Your Feed
Can you spot a fake Facebook page? As with any scam, the best defense is knowledge and vigilance.
Instead of typing your interests into the box, search for them at the top of your home page and find the official page for your interest. Though it will take longer to fill your interest page this way, it will make for a more engaging and worthwhile Facebook viewing experience.
Companies and organizations regularly utilize Facebook to promote products and services and keep in touch with their fans and users. Having regular access to the official page will keep you in the know, allowing you to participate in surveys, contests, or deals happening.
Even an interest in “literature” would benefit from joining an established page that might discuss upcoming novels or writer interviews. Not only will linking to an established page will prevent this scam from materializing on your page, but it will make your feed more engaging by filling it with things you’re genuinely interested in.