The Dark Side Of Facebook, Where People Lie, Steal, And Make Millions
Business Insider/Mike Nudelman
Business Insider/Mike Nudelman
The message had been sent by someone who wasn't his friend on the social network, someone using the alias "Anthony.*" It was a name Fyk had come to know and dread.
Minutes later, the traffic on his website, FunnierPics.net, nosedived. Google Analytics showed the number of active readers drop from 3,000 to zero instantly.
When Fyk, known online as Jason Michaels, clicked over to his company's Facebook page, WTF Magazine, he found another message from Anthony.
"Site's down :(."
Fyk's business was under attack, and not for the first time. He'd spent the past few years locked in ferocious virtual combat over his Facebook pages, battling a shadowy group of adversaries that he and his friends call Script Kiddies, on the assumption that they're young hackers who exploit low-level vulnerabilities on others' sites.
One of Fyk's employees quickly determined that FunnierPics.net was under a distributed denial-of-service (DDoS) reflection attack. When Fyk's team contacted the host, GoDaddy, they learned an estimated 70,000 servers had gone dead, resulting in more than 1 million customers losing web service. Fyk's IP address, GoDaddy confirmed, was the attackers' target. The others were collateral damage.
"Imagine the World Wide Web is like a six-lane highway, and each exit is its own server," Fyk said. "And one of the exits is my server." The attack sent so much traffic up the road to Fyk's exit that every exit preceding it became jammed as well.
And the waves of bots were still coming.
Within 16 hours, Fyk's team got his site working again, but not before they'd lost $15,000 in ad revenue. Since then, his company has been subjected to a number of similar attacks, and one of Fyk's most valuable Facebook pages, an MTV fan page with 1.3 million fans, has been hijacked, stolen by a user who used a security glitch.
Fyk, 40, is a self-made millionaire who's built his fortune almost entirely on Facebook. It's a rewarding business but not without its challenges. Not only must he play a constant game of cat and mouse with hackers and digital thieves but he must do so on a field of battle that is constantly shifting because of Facebook's habit of routinely - and mysteriously - tweaking its algorithm.
"It's legitimately a cyber war," said Fyk, who describes his archenemies as tech-savvy teens who are motivated by boredom. "I make almost a quarter-million dollars a month, so I have to protect what I'm doing. That means if I have to play their kiddie game, I play. I don't have a choice."
They may be kiddie games, but they are hardly trivial, having led to physical threats, out-and-out swindling, and run-ins with police.
And while Facebook security monitors for suspicious behavior, digital theft seems to be running rampant.
Jason FykA Rough Road To Millions
In 2011, Fyk was bankrupt, in jail, and borderline suicidal.
His troubles dated to 2005. Fyk had been working in real estate. As the month went by, the market turned. Eventually, it caused him to go into a "financial tailspin," as he puts it. With a wife and a young child to support, he scrambled to find a new way to generate income.
Some friends approached him about starting a website, and he snatched up the domain WTFMagazine.com. The acronym, they decided, would stand not for What The F--- but Where's The Fun, and the site would be a home for original, entertaining content. Fyk likens his business to College Humor.
"[Our team] was running with no money," Fyk said of the digital business' early days. "We were doing the fake-it-till-you-make-it thing, putting content together and starting to pick up steam, but I had no idea what I was doing."
Fyk formed an LLC on Sept. 10, 2010, and launched the website in January 2011. "It was just fun, goofy, stupid stuff," he said. His Facebook pages and websites publish the same kind of content today.
|WATCH: Jason Fyk explains his "attempted murder" charge.|
Shortly after WTF launched, Fyk found himself behind bars. He'd driven to Baltimore to interview an American stunt group, the Adrenaline Crew, for a story. They were all hanging out in a parking lot, about to drive to the interview location, when a drunken brawl broke out. Startled, Fyk said, he stood off to the side and began filming the fight on his smartphone. When things got serious, he stopped recording and tried to break up the fight. Instead, he got blamed for allegedly planning the altercation and found himself charged with attempted murder.
"It was a stupid drunken brawl," he said, adding that he had met the people involved in the fight only a few minutes earlier. "Granted people got hit, and granted it was a fight, but it was never a felony fight. It was misdemeanor-assault stuff."
Still, Fyk was thrown in jail and had to spend the little money his family had left on a lawyer. Two months later the charges were dropped, and Fyk was released from prison, broke.
"I couldn't just go get a job at McDonald's, because my bills were massive," he said. "My kid held me together. I was almost suicidal. It was a disaster for me. I put my head down and kept pushing forward."
Fyk tried to think of ways to make a lot of money quickly. His jail story was so strange, he felt it might make for a compelling book. But he wasn't an established writer, and he knew the only way to sell a book would be to build a following.
"The only resource I had was social media, and it was free," he said. "I decided to give everything I could toward getting as many eyeballs in my possession. Basically, I needed a distribution list."
At first he tried to grow just one Facebook page, representing WTF Magazine. Before long, he realized that even pages that were totally unrelated to his website could be useful as well.
"It didn't really matter if a page was specific to my brand," he said. "I could get distribution whether it was through WTF or through a 'Family Guy' fan page, for example. As long as I got someone to like a page, they were effectively one more member of the distribution list."
Fyk set out to build and maintain as many pages of all varieties as he possibly could. His wife thought he was crazy. "I'm sitting there when we couldn't put food on the table spending all this time on Facebook pages," he said. "I'm telling her, 'Look, I know the distribution is going to be valuable.'"
Fyk now owns about 40 Facebook pages and controls more than 28 million "likes" in total. The pages reach 260 million people on Facebook and the "distribution" list sends his website tens of millions of pageviews a month. This earns him multiple millions a year in advertising revenue, which he pairs with other businesses, such as social-media consulting. He employs 16 people and has a ghostwriter working on a memoir.
It wasn't long before other Facebook users realized how powerful pages could be. Everyone from teenagers to established publishers scrambled to create distribution lists as Fyk had on Facebook, sometimes acquiring fans through devious or illegal means.
When Facebook Pages first launched, even nonsensical pages could grow followings quickly and organically. A page titled "Can This Poodle Wearing A Tin Foil Hat Get More Fans Than Glenn Beck?," for example, collected 230,000 followers. Pages with news hooks also took off. In 2012, a page called "Binders Full of Women" exploded after a statement Mitt Romney made during the presidential debate, quickly racking up 300,000 likes. When actor Paul Walker passed away, a fan page mourning his death, "R.I.P Paul Walker," earned 422,000 follows in a few days.
Now that the site has become saturated with pages, the easiest way to grow a following is to buy already-established pages from other Facebook users. The buying and selling of Facebook pages is forbidden, since pages aren't owned by managers but by Facebook. But that doesn't stop people from doing it.
The website FanPageTrading.com maintains an online marketplace for Facebook pages. Another service, called Content Promoters, fittingly advertises its service on a Facebook page and offers premade fan pages with 1,000 likes for $20 or 2,500 likes for $40.
"Buying and selling Pages is against our policies, and we use a variety of signals to help detect suspicious actions on Pages," a Facebook representative said. Facebook watches out for other methods of taking over a page, such as theft. "When we surface these high-risk actions, we help the Page admins retain or regain control of their Page using techniques like identity verification or direct one-to-one assistance. We have pursued legal channels as well to help defend our platform."
Fyk, who places the market value of his stable of Facebook pages at more than $1 million, claims some of today's largest publishers either purchased pages a few years ago or teamed up with larger pages to grow their networks.
PolicyMic, a media startup that has more than 10 million monthly uniques and raised more than $12 million, also partners with a dozen popular Facebook pages to help seed and spread stories.
BuzzFeed has been rumored to have bought numerous Facebook pages to help its network grow to more than 100 million monthly unique visitors, but CEO Jonah Peretti said they have never purchased a Facebook page.
When asked how many Facebook pages BuzzFeed owns, Peretti said he isn't sure.
"We have one main page and then I think some of the verticals have them," he told Business Insider in an interview. "We don't buy pages. I did talk to some startup company that buys Facebook pages, and they were explaining how they test content and run it across these things, but we don't do anything like that."
"We have seen that if we do an awesome post about Barbie and a Barbie fan page posts it, there's a spike in traffic," he notes. "It's possible sometimes someone at BuzzFeed will ping someone who runs another page, the same way they'd ping a blog or someone who runs a site. But we don't have any agreement or exchange or anything like that."
In the past, buying and teaming up with other Facebook pages were ways to guarantee distribution on the social network. "A few years ago, you could get cross-posted on other pages and it would be insane how many people you'd get," said Fyk.
Facebook's EdgeRank algorithm has since changed, however, making cross-promotion growth more difficult. Even organic reach, the number of people a publisher can distribute their content to via their own Facebook pages, has diminished.
For businesses like Fyk's, the development is not only frustrating but it's also expensive. Fyk now spends more than $1,000 a day on Facebook ads.
Not long ago, Scott DeLong, founder of the fast-growing web property Viral Nova, likened Facebook's volatility to the threat of a natural disaster.
"Reached 1m fans on FB. Post reach was promptly cut in half. Running a business on FB is like opening a McDonald's on an active volcano," he tweeted, adding "It means you never know when the whole thing can blow up/change on a whim. FB is constantly changing things; no consistency."
To help guarantee Facebook traffic, the buying, selling, trading, and bundling of Facebook Pages have become more popular. But there's another popular way to acquire lots of fans quickly on Facebook: hijack them.
FacebookWhat Teens Really Do On Facebook
Anthony and Austin are teenagers (as such, we are identifying them by first names only). Although they have never met in real life, both said they're like "brothers." They bonded a few years ago when Anthony's Facebook page was stolen and Austin helped him get it back.
Both are members of what they call the Community, an informal group that supposedly connects more than 50,000 tech-savvy teens across the web. Many have found one another through Facebook's "mutual friends" feature. Their shared interests include social networks, gaming, web culture, and hacking, though the Facebook page's About section declares that the group is "dedicated to stopping self-harm, cyber-bullying, and underage nudity" (see the screenshot above). Anthony is often credited with being the ringleader of the Community because he created the page.
"The Community is a large collective of teens on the internet that interact a lot, whether it's just talking and texting and Skyping each other to owning, liking, and sharing Facebook Pages, to following each other on Twitter and Instagram," Anthony told Business Insider in a Skype interview. "The Community has gone largely unnoticed by adults, and it's never been in the news. No one knows what the Community is outside of the Community," he adds. "But it exists."
The pair remember their first experiences with Facebook pages in 2009. The company had just opened up the product to the entire Facebook community and middle-school friends were making ones dedicated to favorite cartoons and celebrities.
"We were just kids, we didn't know what we were doing, we didn't know anything about marketing," Anthony said. "We just kind of jumped head first into this world."
"You had a lot of 12- and 13-year-olds getting on the internet and making Facebook pages so their friends could see them," said Anthony. "What we didn't expect was that this would actually get huge, with online communities of people hijacking and running pages."
Facebook hijacking is when a person who isn't the owner of a Facebook fan page is able to seize control of the page from its manager. Pages go largely unpoliced by Facebook, and there are a number of ways to steal a page from its owner. One method that used to be common was to earn a page manager's trust, offer to help manage it, then delete the original owner from the admin panel and lock them out of the Page. Facebook has since cracked down on this practice by changing the way admin accounts are set up.
The first page Austin remembers seeing stolen was one dedicated to Justin Bieber run by female fans.
"People took these pages because the reactions of these girls were funny," Austin said. "They would take these pages and post things about how they hated Justin Bieber and other irrelevant things, and it would make the girls really angry. The people who stole it would laugh at their reactions."
When people began to monetize Facebook pages, in 2012, stealing pages went from fun and games to full-on cyber combat, complete with confederacies among the owners of the largest pages, and attacks against other page owners who wronged them.
"You have wars, you have diplomacy, you have betrayals, you have alliances, you have secret agreements, you have coalitions, and you have embargoes," Austin said of the current Facebook Page battle.
One of the earliest people to monetize Facebook pages was Carl Shelbourne, now employed by Fyk. Unlike blogs, which enable owners to embed ads on their pages, Facebook does not allow advertising, except its own. Shelbourne began posting affiliate links instead - links to online merchants who pay a percentage of their earnings to whoever sends them customers - and with millions of followers, he soon began bringing in serious revenue.
The use of affiliate links highlighted a philosophical divide among the growing Facebook mafia: users like Fyk and Community members who controlled numerous pages.
"It was like, 'Don't do that,' because we ran pages for the fun," Anthony said. "We didn't run pages for money. That's what separated us from a lot of other adults who ran Facebook pages. We just wanted to have fun."
Though the battle lines were drawn, the idea of monetizing pages eventually became widely accepted, even by Austin and Anthony.
The site Mylikes.com provided moneymaking links for page managers. Meanwhile, in addition to posting affiliate links, page managers occasionally created clothing lines and sold fan T-shirts.
"The summer of 2012 was perhaps the most moneymaking period for all of us," said Austin. He said he raked in about $10,000 in July alone.
"Everyone was making major bank," said Anthony.
Facebook Page monetization was also made possible by the creation of tools that helped users manage more than one page at a time. Hootsuite, for example, allows page managers to blast content across multiple Facebook properties at once. Facebook has also added the ability to schedule blasts.
Fyk has assembled one of the largest page networks on the platform, outside of traditional publishers like BuzzFeed who own numerous pages for different verticals. But his team has struggled to get their pages verified by Facebook, which makes them a prime target for hijackers like Austin and Anthony. Facebook isn't as quick to help unverified Page owners retrieve their followings when they get reported or removed, and sometimes the pages are lost forever.
Austin has also felt the pain of losing a valuable Facebook Page. One of the pages he was able to grow and monetize was a 4chan fan page, which topped 500,000 followers. When 4chan complained about it to Facebook, the page disappeared.
"Facebook gave me no opportunity to change the name," Austin recalled. "All of that work on the page, and it got deleted."
While some pages get shut down because of complaints from the copyright owners, others are victims of the ongoing cyber war.
"Hey man, I have your 1m page," the message read. "I'll give you your one million page, and I get this in return, deal?"
Fyk didn't take the deal, and he still hasn't gotten his MTV page back.
Recently, another page of Fyk's was temporarily removed from Facebook for publishing pornographic content that Fyk said he never approved. After a little digging, he found a Facebook status update suggesting Austin was behind it.
Soon, Fyk received a message from another Facebook user who confirmed Austin's involvement. This person asked Fyk to pay him a lump sum of cash in exchange for getting Austin and his friends to leave Fyk's pages alone. Fyk, while temped to end the war, hasn't paid.
The Community's reason for partaking in Facebook pranks and hijackings is simple: They think it's funny. And the pay - money that can be generated after amassing Facebook likes - isn't bad either.
"It provokes a reaction that some people find absolutely hilarious," Anthony said. "For others it's for monetary benefits."
Hijackers such as Anthony and Austin don't fear Fyk or Facebook's wrath. They've both been kicked off the social site numerous times. They either create new accounts or get old accounts back from friends.
"It happens," said Anthony. "I get my account back every other day."
Deleting and stealing Facebook pages is just the beginning, though. Another common tactic is trying to get innocent Facebookers in trouble with law-enforcement authorities.
Once, when some of the Facebook hackers were in a battle with Fyk, they spread a rumor on the social network, branding him a pedophile.
"He said he was going to kill my friend, so we said he was a pedophile and he got spammed and everyone who likes his page thinks he's a pedophile now," Anthony said with a laugh. "It's just silly little internet things that drive him insane, and it's nothing illegal. I have my freedom of speech to say anything like that, but we don't do anything in terms of black-hat illegal activity."
When we mentioned the laws against defamation, Anthony backtracked. "Probably somewhere along the lines of that, but it wasn't me who did it, so I'm not really worried, and I forgot who even did it," he said.
In Anthony's defense, Fyk is not entirely blameless for the ongoing hostilities. Occasionally, the millionaire has lost his temper and said things he likely regrets.
Another teen has tangled with Fyk online also said he was threatened.
After Ben (a pseudonym) stole one of Fyk's Facebook groups - something he readily admits - he said he received a message back from Fyk. "I have contacts outside of Facebook," it said. "I'll destroy your life." The message included his address, phone number, and father's name.
Not every Facebook prank perpetrated by the Community is about tormenting Fyk.
Once, for example, Anthony and a friend thought it'd be funny to convince their Facebook friends they had died.
"I made a bunch of news articles about myself that I actually got hosted on news organizations' sites for obituaries about me and my friend," Anthony said. "We then posted in the Facebook groups saying we were going to kill ourselves. Nine or 10 hours later we got alternate accounts for Facebook and posted the news articles, and it caused this massive uproar inside the group."
Soon a rest-in-peace Facebook page in his name appeared, racking up 20,000 likes.
"It was not uncommon to see stories of kids' computers getting infected by rogue viruses and 25 gigabytes of child porn being put on their computers and a swat team being sent to their house," he said over Skype. "It's not uncommon for people's personal bank details to get leaked, and it's not uncommon for Social Security numbers to get leaked."
"It's an all-in prank war," he added.
The Facebook crusades have made him paranoid. Before agreeing to be interviewed, he said, he stalked me, my husband, and my extended family online to make sure the request was authentic.
"I've been thrown on my bed and handcuffed [by cops] and asked questions about what I do online," Anthony said. "I've been harassed and threatened before. I get death threats on a daily basis."
Despite the frightening encounters, Anthony feels largely untouchable. When his next birthday rolls around, that might change.
"The fact that I'm not 18, my personal information is not yet publicly on people-finder sites, and I kind of mask my IP address ... makes me largely untouchable by 95% of the people in the hacking community," he said.
Fyk, too, maintains more than one identity on Facebook.
"I would never use my real name because I've seen firsthand what the internet can do," Anthony said. "The internet strips you of a lot of innocence and you fall into the wrong crowds sometimes and get desensitized to the stuff you see."
For Anthony, whose Facebook profile said he specializes in "cyber bullying," knowing where to draw the line in online antics requires a serious gut check. "The line for myself is two things," he said. "I don't cause permanent damage to people, and if I knew I was causing permanent damage to someone, I would stop it. Or, females. I don't mess with females like that."
That said, both hackers have regrets.
"Sometimes I look back and cringe," said Austin. "I look at my mistakes and I say, 'Wow, I was stupid,' but that's how I refine my methods."
Anthony, too, sounded somewhat remorseful.
"One day, you're just a normal kid," he said. "You don't wake up one day and say you're going to take someone's Facebook page. It all started out as joking and having fun."
No doubt Fyk wishes he could hammer out a truce - or at least a cessation of hostilities - with the Script Kiddies. They've discussed it, although nothing has been resolved. Anthony said the trio is working on a "mutual negotiation" right now.
Fyk isn't sure anything will change, though.
"It has been my personal experience that they never stop," he told Business Insider in an email. "Do I want peace? Yes, peace of mind that my family, my business, my employees, and myself are safe from harassment and [cyber] terrorism."
Facebook's security team is aware of the hijacking problem and is trying to clamp down on it. "We recommend Page admins enhance their account security by enabling Login Approvals on Facebook and adding a second authentication factor for email accounts," a company representative said. "It's also a good idea to limit the number of admins on Pages and to use less permissive roles like Moderator for administrators who don't require access to all functions."
Even if an agreement were reached and Facebook's security improved, it would not mean the end of Fyk's difficulties by a long shot.
For that, Facebook would need to become a slightly more amenable environment in which to do business. "Facebook can be difficult," Fyk wrote. "But without it [WTF Magazine] would never be able to be on this earth. I live a very comfortable life. So we thank them for the platform. We just ask that they don't take it away from people once it becomes valuable to their businesses."
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