This is what Vietnam’s dark “click farms” look like

(CNN) — Jack Latham was on a mission to photograph farms in Vietnam: not the country’s vast rice plantations or terraces, but its “click farms.”

Last year, the British photographer spent a month in the capital, Hanoi, documenting some of the shady companies that manipulate algorithms and user perception in the hope of helping their clients artificially increase online traffic and social media engagement. Do it. The resulting images, which appear in his new book “Beggar’s Honey,” offer a rare glimpse of the sweatshops that employ low-wage workers to garner likes, comments and shares for companies and people around the world .

“When most people are on social media, they just want attention, they’re begging for it,” Latham said in a phone interview, explaining the title of his book. “With social media, our focus is on a product for advertisers and marketers.”

Jack Latham's project took him to five click farms in Vietnam.  (Credit: Jack Latham/Courtesy Here Press)

Jack Latham’s project took him to five click farms in Vietnam. (Credit: Jack Latham/Courtesy Here Press)

Click Farm Latham's documentation operates from residential properties and hotels.  (Credit: Courtesy Jack Latham/Here Press)

Click Farm Latham’s documentation operates from residential properties and hotels. (Credit: Courtesy Jack Latham/Here Press)

In the 2000s, the growing popularity of social media, including Facebook and Twitter, now known as X, created a new market for well-crafted digital profiles, with companies and brands competing to maximize their visibility and influence. Were. Although it is unclear when click farms began to proliferate, technology experts already warned in 2007 about the existence of “virtual gang bosses” who run them from low-income countries.

Over the following decades, click farms multiplied, especially in Asia, where they can be found in India, Bangladesh, Indonesia, the Philippines, and other countries. Regulation has often not kept pace: while some countries, such as China, have attempted to crack down on these operations (the China Advertising Association banned the use of click farms for commercial purposes in 2020), they continue to lack fruition. Are blooming. across the continent, especially in locations where low labor and electricity costs make it economical to power hundreds of devices at once.

“Like Silicon Valley startups”

Latham’s project took him to five farms in Vietnam. (The farmers he had hoped to photograph in Hong Kong were “grounded,” he said, and pandemic-related travel restrictions scuppered his plans to document the practice in mainland China.) On the outskirts of Hanoi, Latham visited workshops running in homes and hotels.

Some had a traditional setup with hundreds of hand-held phones, while others used a new, more compact method called “box farming” – a term used by the click farmers observed by Latham – In which multiple phones without screens or batteries are connected by cable and connected to a computer interface.

Social media activity generated by click farms can be difficult to trace because online behavior appears so similar to that of a legitimate user.  (Credit: Courtesy Jack Latham/Here Press)

Social media activity generated by click farms can be difficult to trace because online behavior appears so similar to that of a legitimate user. (Credit: Courtesy Jack Latham/Here Press)

Latham said one of the click farms he visited was a family business, although others looked like tech companies. He said most of the employees were between 20 and 30 years old.

“They were all like Silicon Valley startups,” he said. “There was a huge amount of hardware…whole walls of phones.”

Some of Latham’s photos show activists working to collect clicks, albeit anonymously. In one image, a man is seen performing a lonely and monotonous task amidst a sea of ​​gadgets.

“It only takes one person to control a large number of phones,” Latham said. “One person can do the work of 10,000 very quickly. It’s both lonely and crowded.”

On the farms Lathan visited, people were usually in charge of a certain social media platform. For example, a “farmer” was responsible for mass posting and commenting on Facebook accounts, or creating the YouTube platform where looping videos are posted and viewed. The photographer said that among the click farms he visited, TikTok is now the most popular platform.

“They were all like Silicon Valley startups,” Latham said. “There was a huge amount of hardware…whole walls of phones.” (Credit: Courtesy Jack Latham/Here Press)

Most of the click farmers Latham spoke to advertised their services online at less than one cent per click, view or interaction. The photographer explained, and despite the fraudulent nature of their assignment, they treated it as just another job.

“They understood they were just providing a service,” he said. “There was no bad faith. What they offer are shortcuts.”

misconception

Across its 134 pages, “Beggar’s Honey” includes a collection of abstract photographs — some seductive, others contemplative — that represent the videos that appear on Latham’s TikTok feed. Latham included them in the book to reflect the type of content being promoted by click farms.

But many of his photographs focus on the hardware used to manipulate social networks: networks of phones, computers, and cables.

“A lot of my work deals with conspiracies,” Latham said. “Trying to ‘document the machines used to spread disinformation’ is the motto of the project. The bigger picture is often what we don’t see.”

“Box farms”, a term used by the click farmers observed by Latham, involve multiple phones wired together and connected to a computer interface. (Credit: Jack Latham/Courtesy Here Press)

Click farms are also used around the world to amplify political messages and spread misinformation during elections. In 2016, Cambodia’s then-Prime Minister Hun Sen was accused of buying friends and likes on Facebook, which the BBC reported he denied, while shadowing campaigns in North Macedonia in favor of Donald Trump during the US presidency. Posts and articles were spread in. Elections that year.

Latham said that during the research he discovered that algorithms – the subject of his previous book, “Latent Bloom” – often produce recommended videos that become increasingly “extreme” with each click.

“If you only digest that diet, it’s only a matter of time before you become a diabetes conspiracy theorist,” he said. “The spread of misinformation is the worst. It happens in your pocket, not in the newspapers, and it is appalling that it is suitable for your type of neurosis.”

Hoping to raise awareness of the phenomenon and its dangers, Latham plans to demonstrate his homemade version of a click farm – a small box containing multiple phones connected to a computer interface – at the 2024 Vevey Images Festival in Switzerland. He bought the gadget in Vietnam for the equivalent of about $1,000 and has occasionally used it on his social media accounts.

On Instagram, Latham’s photos typically receive anywhere from a few dozen to a few hundred likes. But when he deployed his personal click farm to announce his latest book, the post received more than 6,600 likes. The photographer wants people to realize that there’s more to what they see on social media, and metrics don’t measure authenticity.

“When people know better how things work, they can make more informed decisions,” he explained.

“Beggar’s Honey,” co-published by Here Press and Images Wave, is available now.

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