Posted on February 7, 2023 in Technology

Interactions Scams: If You Don’t Like it, Then Don’t Click the ‘Like’ Button!

Interaction scams have been around for as long as interactions have been measureable. From early Facebook’s insistence that clicking ‘like’ will somehow magically make a picture change when you refresh the page to early chain letters demanding you forward the text to ten other people, somebody always wants your attention.

We should know this – how does it keep happening?

I Promise I’ll Hurt You If You Don’t Like This Image

The early digital chain letters were usually texts or emails that were threatening in some way. “If you don’t send this letter to 10 other people, Sawako will come get YOU!”, or things to that effect. Occasionally, one would promise something positive or lucky, but people are far more likely to spend their energy avoiding something bad than moving towards something good, so the ominous ones spread further and lasted longer.

Then it became possible to block them both on email and phones. That didn’t kill them – plenty of adults and elderly folks are still shuffling around more modern versions of the positive ones in the hopes of spreading some joy to their grandkids and friends, and meme compilations are plenty popular among the Facebook crowd – but it wasn’t the straight ticket to virality that it used to be.

Around this time in the early 2000’s, things began to change on the internet. Websites began experimenting with voting systems alongside their chronological ones, and places like MySpace and Digg sprung up among the forums and chatrooms that comprised a lot of the early ‘social networks’.

This is where those chain letters evolved – posts began insisting that if you didn’t share, like, or upvote the post, something bad would happen to you. Some posts (such as the infamous ‘my child will like this post’ Jesus vs. ‘My child will keep scrolling!’ Satan meme) would call into question the character of the person who didn’t interact, calling them all matter of ugly things to insult them into upvoting the post – thus spreading it further and insulting more people with it.

The positive engagement scammer posts became less and less common, and the good ones that did still circulate were usually something like ‘This is the immunity duck. You are now immune to posts requiring you to share them’, meant mostly for the kids who didn’t know better and the adults with anxiety or OCD who knew intellectually that the post couldn’t hurt them, but couldn’t shake the compulsion to avoid the ‘risk’. Eventually, website users stopped giving these posts the attention they wanted so badly, but accounts still produce them on Twitter and Facebook to rope in the new users who don’t know better and the people who feel compelled to share them. Thanks to websites like Facebook and Twitter using algorithms to sort posts instead of time, these posts still occasionally show up in front of ordinary accounts that don’t reward them in an effort to get traction. They’ll always be there, hovering at the edges, waiting to be let in.

New Forms

Once the negative and overly threatening ones had run their course, the format changed – there was still a demand for interaction, after all. They started suggesting that something interesting would happen if you ‘liked’ or ‘upvoted’ or otherwise interacted with the image or post. Maybe the icon would turn blue! Maybe you’d get some confetti! Maybe the image would do something weird or scary! What do you have to lose by engaging with the photo, if only to see whether or not the like icon turns blue?

 Of course, on websites run by algorithms, ‘liking’ the image means that the website knows you interacted with it even if you ‘unliked’ the image immediately after. The image is convincing you to interact with it to artificially boost its perceived popularity to a series of AIs that can’t tell what it’s doing to get that popularity. A similar phenomenon led to the most controversial, annoying, or incorrect videos getting pushed to the front of Youtube’s recommended page because of their system’s belief that any engagement is good engagement – including dozens and dozens of people correcting the contents of the video or arguing below it in the comments.

Similarly, hack channels have gotten to a point where they’re beginning to bait ‘debunking’ videos into using their videos because they’ve completely run out of new or interesting content to make. This shift towards making things ridiculous on purpose has not curtailed their views, not only because the content is still bizarre enough to entertain kids, but also because savvy viewers will run to the comments trying to keep those kids from hurting themselves. That’s what’s especially cruel about many of these hack channels: their bright colors, snappy transitions, and goofy actors appeal to children and keep them engaged… while they also showcase hacks that have injured and killed kids who didn’t recognize the danger in, say, heating oil in a soda can to make popcorn, or modifying electronics so they’ll do something funny or strange, or cooking eggs in the microwave (even outside of their shell, eggs can explode if you do that because the yolk and white cook at different speeds!).

The people engaging with the video are doing their best to stop other people from getting hurt, but because the algorithmic machine rewards engagement, their frantic screaming trying to save other people from wasting their time or money (as well as trying to save them from burns or electrocution) is only heard as cheering by the AI.

Onto the New Platforms

This version of the engagement scamming continues on in video-sharing apps like TikTok, which should be beyond it – the problem is that Gen Z did not get the same education into online matters that millennials or even Gen-Xers did. Gen Z children grew up in the world of the iPad and Windows Defender – they are not as naturally skeptical of downloads and scams as they would be if they’d grown up in the era of malicious LimeWire.EXE downloads disguised as MP3s. In general, Gen-Z is less cautious because their devices have safety rails built in, and they never have to lean on them anyway because the world has consolidated into a few streaming services and social media apps, none of which are going to download malware onto their phones. The kids younger than them may not even learn how to type in school – they’ll be given Chromebooks and be expected to figure it out themselves with experience off of whatever device they have at home, which is taken as a given.

All of this is to say that just because they grew up with the tech doesn’t mean they’ll be able to spot obvious engagement bait, and the early proliferation of videos on TikTok asking people to hit the three dots (which is where the information needed to share the video is) without giving a reason, and then later by telling the viewer that something wacky would happen, is evidence of that. In its early days, that could be taken as a result of the app itself being new and not a sign of the new generation having to re-learn these lessons: one party clearly understands how to game the system, and the other party is not certain yet that TikTok doesn’t do that. What if TikTok does shoot confetti when you like a video? What if it does turn the heart blue sometimes? What if it’s a glitch? Etc. But as time went on, and it became clear to users that TikTok was not some dinky little app that happened to make it overseas, they should have stopped. They didn’t. The userbase falling for those tricks en masse were too young to like Facebook or Reddit before those scams became obsolete.

And that’s not the only trend that carried over – videos stating that “If you see this video on (The Date They Posted It or a Day Later), it was meant for you” encourage viewers to watch the whole thing by drawing out the speed at which the slides switch. This is a simple but clever reimagining of the chain letters promising something good will happen, mixed with classic fortune telling tricks. Convince someone that they are meant to watch the entire video (which means your video is ranked more positively) and give generic advice at the same time. For the people it applies to, this reinforces the feeling that they were supposed to see this video, watch it, like it, and share it with other people – they associate the positive feelings they receive from being acknowledged (even digitally, by a stranger who couldn’t possibly know they were watching) with the video. It’s how IRL psychics work, too, and this particular trick works across the entire age spectrum so long as the person watching is receptive to that sort of spirituality. By evolving to incorporate new tricks, the engagement scam has gamed the system once again.

Will It Ever Stop?

As long as there are entities willing to beg shamelessly for votes or likes (or manipulate people into giving them those things) these chain letters/videos/images/reblogs/retweet chains will continue to evolve alongside whatever new trendy social media springs up next.

If you want to see less of them, don’t even downvote or hit the dislike button – block the accounts responsible and move on. You can only counter these accounts by not providing them their fuel – engagement.