A significant portion of internet traffic isn't real. It's perpetuated by bots, fake accounts set up to artificially inflate the popularity of a website, social media post, or advertisement. On Sunday, the world got a rare look at what the click fraud business really looks like.
When police raided a rented home in Thailand, they discovered Wang Dong, Niu Bang, and Ni Wenjin were running an extensive fake click enterprise. The three Chinese individuals were arrested on charges including working without a permit and smuggling SIM cards into the country.
Inside their house located near the Cambodian border was a makeshift metal rig fitted with 500 smartphones, which were each wired to a computer monitor. In total, Thai police reportedly seized almost 350,00 SIM cards, 21 SIM card readers, and nine computers from the men.
The officers initially believed the rig was used to run a fraudulent call center, a common crime in Southeast Asia. The trio explained that they were actually operating a network of so-called sock puppet accounts on China's largest social network, WeChat.
A company in China reportedly supplied the phones and paid the men 150,000 baht ($4403) a month for the operation, according to a Thai immigration officer.
The click farm proprietors likely headquartered their business overseas because Thailand has relatively low smartphone usage fees.
Buying SIM cards in bulk is also increasingly difficult in China. Last year, the government began requiring users (including foreigners) to provide identification before registering one. Thailand, though, has similar requirements. It's not clear how the Chinese nationals obtained so many SIM cards.
The rig the Chinese men built isn't unique. Dozens of similar click farm setups have been documented across China.
It's difficult to estimate how large of a problem click fraud is on WeChat. The messaging platform, which has more than 880 million monthly active users, is considerably more private than open social networking sites like Twitter.
Created in 2010, WeChat is designed for small groups and individuals to message one another. It works similarly to WhatsApp. Since all groups are visible by invitation-only, it's difficult to monitor problems like click fraud and fake news (there is an option for businesses and other groups to create "official accounts," which are public).
Still, "zombie fans" are a documented problem on WeChat. A 2015 investigation conducted by The Bejinger showed it's startlingly easy and inexpensive to manipulate likes and views on the messaging platform.
Although charges related to working in Thailand illegally can come with a sentence of up to five years in prison, the three men are reportedly likely only going to pay a fine before being deported back to China.
What will happen to the fake likes they generated is still a mystery.
Tencent, WeChat's parent company, did not return a request for comment.