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From Facebook Likes to Political Polls: Sneaky Ways You’re Being Misled

Hate to break it to you, but when it comes to online reviews, Facebook likes, Twitter followers, and political polls, there's a good chance you're being conned.

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Many Twitter/Instagram followers and Facebook likes are paid for

You know that celebrity who has a ton of Twitter followers, or that new business that has a slew of likes on Facebook? Yeah, about that: There’s a good chance those followers and likes were supplied by companies for a fee. Back in December, Instagram went after fake celebrity followers, targeting some of the biggest names. Practically over night, Kim Kardashian lost 1.3 million followers, hip-hop star Akon was down 56 percent, and Justin Bieber lost 3.5 million Instagram Beliebers, says socialmediatoday.com. So, how to tell if you’re being hoodwinked? Well, on Facebook, one good way is to check the ratio between likes and people actually talking about the page. If the page has thousands of likes, but only three people chatting about it, that’s a red flag. “That screams at me that there are a lot of inactive likes on that page, accounts that never engage with the page and never comment or share their posts,” wrote Matt Jackson on LinkedIn.

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The excited crowd at that event might have been hired

“Astroturfing” is not the act of playing on artificial turf. It’s the practice of employing supporters-for-hire “to create the illusion of grassroots enthusiasm,” states the Atlantic. And it’s popular among politicians and businesses alike looking to generate buzz or to protest opponents. Even Donald Trump has used hired supporters, reports CNN. “During last year’s New York City Pride Parade, a group of anti-gay marriage “protesters” were actually several hired day laborers,” says the Atlantic. “Local carpenters unions—notably the Mid-Atlantic Regional Council of Carpenters—have been using such tactics for years, paying temporary workers (and often the homeless) to walk picket lines during a strike.” Organizations that hire out fake supporters do so in an attempt to “shift the media narrative,” Adam Swart, who runs Crowd On Demand, told CNN. So the next time you spot a celebrity being mobbed outside a posh boutique or when a flash mob magically appears at a corporate event, you can guess why they’re there.

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Polls are often way off

If you listened to the polls, the 2012 presidential election was expected to be a squeaker. It wasn’t—President Obama won handily. In March, pollsters told us Hillary Clinton would run away with the Michigan Democratic primary. Not only didn’t she win big, she lost. Indeed, polls have been wrong far more in recent times than they were decades ago. And there are good reasons for it. Blame “the growth of cellphones and the decline in people willing to answer surveys,” political scientist Cliff Zukin told The Week. Sixty percent of Americans rely on cell phones as opposed to a decade ago when the number was 6 percent. That makes it tough for the polling industry, which relies heavily on “making automated ‘robocalls’ to random landline exchanges and then, when people picked up, passing them to a live interviewer,” reports The Week. It’s illegal to robocall cellphones, which means pollsters have to dial manually, a time-consuming and expensive operation. If companies decide to go on the cheap, they risk ignoring huge chunks of the population, such as the young and the poor, who are more likely to rely on cell phones than the elderly and well off. Undercount the former group and you undercount Democrats.
But that’s not the only issue. When pollsters do call, fewer people answer. “In the late 1970s, we considered an 80 percent response rate acceptable,” says Zukin. “By 2014, the response rate had fallen to 8 percent.” Thanks to caller ID and voicemail, people are more likely to let unknown numbers go unanswered.

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Beware online reviews

That review on Amazon? Well, it may not be on the up and up. Fake scribes on craigslist and fiverr.com have offered to write glowing reviews for pay. In fact, last October, Amazon sued 1,114 people for offering to write fake reviews. In other cases, companies routinely hand out gifts to people if they’ll give a strong rating on Yelp, Google, or Facebook. One person approached to write such a review was Scott Willis. He went to a care clinic after a car accident and was not impressed by the service he received. “It was just a really bad experience,” he told CBS News. A week later, he received a postcard from the clinic. It offered him a free Starbucks gift card in return for a rating of three stars or better on Yelp, Facebook, or Google. He didn’t oblige, but others, no doubt, have. Check out these clever tips to spot a fake online review.

Reader's Digest
Originally Published in Reader's Digest

Andy Simmons
Andy Simmons is a features editor at Reader's Digest.