Facebook is suing a New Zealand company and three individuals in a US federal court for selling fake likes, shares, and followers on Instagram, the company announced in a blog post last week. It alleges that the firm, Social Media Series Ltd, spent years selling fake, automated engagement to Instagram users through shady sites such as IGFamous.me, which claim to generate ‘free followers’ for any account.

Customers paid ranging $10 to $99 per week depending on the number of likes they want to purchase for their accounts. It said it had previously suspended accounts and formally warned the company in writing, but their activity persisted. Facebook, which typically suspends or bans accounts that it finds to be acting inauthentically, wrote: “By filing the lawsuit, we are sending a message that this kind of fraudulent activity is not tolerated on our services, and we will act to protect the integrity of our platform.” A report by The Verge, citing Facebook’s complaint, said the three defendants – Arend Nollen, Leon Hedges, and David Pasanen – had been running social media bot operations since mid-2015. They shut down their original sites after Facebook sent them a cease-and-desist letter in early 2018 but continued operating through a new storefront using a fake name. As the lawsuit further claim, the company and its directors has “unjustly enriched themselves at the expense of Facebook and Instagram in the amount of approximately $9,430,000”, since July 2018.

The lawsuit says that “through their business, Defendants [Social Media Series Limited and its directors] interfered and continue to interfere with Instagram’s service, create an inauthentic experience for Instagram users, and attempt to fraudulently influence Instagram users for their own enrichment”. Facebook’s lawsuit asks the court to prevent the defendants from:

  • Engaging and profiting in the sale of fake likes, views and followers on Instagram
  • Violating its terms of use and community guidelines
  • Violating the Computer Fraud and Abuse Act and other California laws by distributing fake likes on Instagram even after their access was revoked and their accounts were suspended

This is Facebook’s second lawsuit against companies and individuals for engaging in such behaviour in the past two months. On March 1, Facebook announced it was suing four companies and three people based in China in a US federal court for “promoting the sale of fake accounts, likes and followers”. It said they did this on Facebook and Instagram as well as other online service providers including Amazon, Apple, Google, LinkedIn and Twitter.

Facebook’s action against ‘inauthentic behaviour’ in India

Facebook said in early April that it had removed 687 pages and accounts linked to the Congress party, and 15 pages, groups and accounts linked to individuals associated with Silver Touch, an Ahmedabad-based IT firm with ties to the BJP for engaging in “coordinated inauthentic behaviour”. Facebook said the individuals behind this activity used fake accounts, the majority of which had already been detected and suspended by its automated systems, and joined various groups to disseminate their content and increase engagement on their own pages.