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Is it illegal to buy Facebook fans?

Celebrities, politicians and businesses have all in recent times been accused of paying to increase their following on social networks. But is it legal for example to buy Facebook fans?

It can sometimes be illegal to buy Facebook fans © kbuntu - Fotolia
It can sometimes be illegal to buy Facebook fans © kbuntu – Fotolia

Celebrities and Facebook fans

Within the space of a few days, the number of fans on Robert Lewandowski’s (Borussia Dortmund striker) Facebook page exploded from half a million to 1.2 million. Small wonder then, that suspicion arose that the striker had paid for the fans.

Lewandowski is by no means the first celebrity to face such suspicions: Germany’s political party the Christian Democrats (CDU), US politician Mitt Romney and “I’m a Celebrity” (German version) contestant Georgina Fleur, are all said to have obtained false followers on Twitter or false “likes” over Facebook.

How to buy Facebook fans

Facebook fans can be purchased quickly and easily through an agency. But should celebrities worry not only about the negative publicity but also about the legal consequences?

Is buying Facebook fans illegal?

Private profiles

It is perfectly legal for private individuals to buy “likes” and fans for their Facebook page or other social network profiles. This is because no harm is caused by private individuals buying fans. Also, in the case of Facebook, the terms of use do not prohibit such actions.

However, although it is not illegal for private individuals to purchase fans, it may well be morally questionable.

Business profiles

The legal position with regard to businesses buying Facebook fans is different.

The number of Facebook fans or Twitter followers a company has, can be seen as a digital demonstration of the company’s or its product’s popularity.

Where businesses purchase recommendations and loyalty for their social network profiles, they are feigning popularity and commercial success.

The situation is similar to the illegal purchase of positive consumer feedback (so-called astroturfing).

The practice can not only influence consumers’ decisions but also damage a competitor’s business. Such misleading marketing campaigns are prohibited under German competition law and therefore illegal.

However, Wilde Beuger Solmecke’s media law expert, Christian Solmecke notes that: “the courts have not yet reached a clear position on the legality of purchasing Facebook fans or on using similar marketing campaigns on other social networks.”

Consequences for businesses

Companies which use such sneaky marketing strategies not only risk damaging their image, but could also receive costly warning letters from competitors or consumer associations. In the worst case scenario, they could even face court action.

Consequences for celebrities

Where celebrities are concerned, the legal position is more complicated.

Many celebrities utilise social networks to present and keep in touch with their true fan bases. The number of fans or followers and celebrity has, reflects on their celebrity status and represents a certain commercial and economic value.

Manipulating the number of fans can have a negative impact on competing celebrities and even influence the outcome of well-paid sponsorship offers.

For this reason, when celebrities buy Facebook fans or followers on other social networks, it is analogous to a business purchasing fans and should therefore be considered a prohibited misleading action.

Conclusion: don’t buy Facebook fans!

It seems that there are therefore a number of reasons why businesses would be well advised to refrain from purchasing Facebook fans or social network followers:

Firstly, many social media experts doubt whether purchased fans really have any effect on the account holder.

Secondly, Facebook apps such as the “Facebook-Like-Check” now make it easier to spot the manipulation of fan numbers – for example by recognising when thousands of fans emanating from Asia or Eastern Europe are added to a German Facebook profile.

Thirdly, purchasing social network fans or followers is prohibited and represents an illegal infringement of German competition law which can be pursued by warning letters and court actions.

Celebrities too, should also be mindful of buying Facebook fans, not only because it is illegal, but mainly because having to resort to such tactics is really quite embarrassing!