Fake it till you make it – Is our Government buying ‘likes’ on Facebook?

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Whatever you say about our Government, you cannot criticise its energy – well, this month at least.

Government ministers are everywhere. They are handing over tractors, presenting school equipment (even if Korean aid paid for it), visiting Kadavu health centres and Ovalau monuments and handing over boats and awarding degrees in universities – you name it.

The national minimum wage is to be reviewed. Well, the last time the Government said that was four years ago.

Curiously, the Government only remembers to talk about minimum wage reviews in an election year.

No-one in Fiji is particularly surprised by this flurry of activity, talk of a mini-budget and – we secretly hope – a gathering tidal wave of freebies.

But what we may find a bit more surprising is how desperate the Government is to be liked – and how far it will go to show us that.

Because this is the twenty-first century – and it turns out that, for not very much money, you can pay to pretend you are popular.

Some of you may know that I lurk on Facebook from time to time. I don’t post pictures of what is on my plate or which bar I am drinking in, but I try.

To guard myself against being as self-obsessed as everyone on social media seems to be, I occasionally wander around (virtually) looking at what everyone else is doing on Facebook. This includes our Government, which, after all, I pay for.

The “Fijian Government” (as it insists on calling itself) is a frenzied user of Facebook.

This is where you can find pictures of ministers and government officials opening things, handing over things, talking about things – even holding meetings with each other. No achievement is too small to feature.

Those of us on social media of course want to know if anyone is paying attention to us (and of course, to show off to everybody else about how much attention we are getting). Hence, that millennial phenomenon – “likes”.

On Twitter you get a small heart if someone approves of your tweet. Facebook caters to a wider range of emotions. You can get a thumbs-up, a heart, a laughing emoji or a grumpy face (among others).

This, of course, includes the Government.

Tailevu goes global

Drifting casually over the Facebook page of “the Fijian Government” the other day I came across another of its multiple posts – “RURAL FARMER GRATEFUL TO GOVERNMENT FOR ROAD UPGRADES”.

The gratitude was expressed (or at least, so the Government said) by a farmer from Nakorowakau Settlement, Namalata, Tailevu, for road upgrading works. There were several paragraphs about the gratitude.

What I found intriguing about this, though, was that the post had 464 likes – in the form of little “thumbs-up” signs or hearts.

How were about 500 people so excited about the fact that a road grader had gone through rural Tailevu? I decided to take a closer look.

The Tailevu road upgrade seemed to be getting a lot of international attention.

A random screenshot revealed that Rich Milø, Estiven Lopez, Siam Adnan and Hoang The Manjh loved it. So did Ahmed Sizuka, Md Taijul Islam and someone who preferred to identify in what looks like the Bengali script.

This seemed to account for half of the likes. But equally interesting were the “likers” with much more local names – people like John Siga, Sonal Naraya and Priya Lusia. “Great job”, they were saying. “Appreciate”. “Good work”.

As you know, you can get to know people on Facebook by looking at their profiles. You can see who their own Facebook friends are, the things and places they like, and so on.

Sadly, John Siga is friendless. No friends at all. He created his profile 10 days ago. Sonal Naraya, an even more recent arrival on Facebook, is the same.

Interestingly, according to her profile, Priya Lusia went to the (boys only) Marist Brothers High School.

The other curious thing about the Tailevu road upgrades post was that it appeared to attract 172 comments. But when I tried to read them, I could only find about 20 – all highly complimentary.

The other 150 comments appeared to be hidden or deleted. Why, one wonders, would this be? Perhaps the other 150 comments were not so friendly?

The Fijian Government has just posted that Education Minister Premila Kumar is “disgusted” by a statement by Fiji Women’s Crisis Centre Co-ordinator Shamima Ali (there are many paragraphs of Ministerial disgust – 15 paragraphs in all. The Fijian Government also needs a good editor).

“Great work” comments Sera Selkrick.

Sera Selkrick describes herself as a “social worker” working at “D&A Law Firm”. She lives, apparently, in “Marama, Fiji”. I’m not sure where “Marama, Fiji” is. But I am pretty sure there isn’t a law firm there.

Sera appears to be another ex-Marist girl.

And who, from Sera’s profile, does she follow on Facebook? Three accounts: the Fiji First Party. The Fijian Government. And Attorney-General Aiyaz Sayed-Khaiyum.

And on and on it goes.

The ex-Qorvis operative Graham Davis, one of the Governent’s former professional cheerleaders and now a vocal critic, appears to have made a study of all this. He claims that there is “industrial-scale” creation of fake Fiji profiles on Facebook and they are all devoted to saying nice things about the Government.

Farming for friends

It’s a confusing world for old GenXers like me. I’m learning that you can “buy likes” on the internet. There are whole businesses out there in the world who generate random profiles of people. They are called “like farms”. They grow people who will “like” things, like other farmers grow chickens.

You can pay a “like farm” to generate “likes” on your Facebook page. The good news, if you’re the Government, is that it’s cheap. For two US dollars, you can get a quick 100 likes.

And if you pay someone enough, their fake profiles will also comment with “Great!” and “Good job!” or anything you need them to say.

Is this what the Government is doing? Is this why all these people with strange-sounding foreign names are praising what is happening in Tailevu?

And it turns out, reading the profiles of John Siga and Sonal Naraya and Priya Luisa and Sera Selkrick, that we also appear to have local farmers (though that is probably not the sort of farming the Minister of Agriculture was expecting).

How has it all come to this?

One can imagine, perhaps, an insecure 20-year-old wanting to impress his friends with a slew of paid thumbs-ups as he frolics on a beach baring his chest.

But why would the government of the sovereign democratic Republic of Fiji feel this need?

Is it, perhaps, that when it is telling Fiji’s people about all its achievements, it wants them to think: “What a popular government, I think I should vote for it again because so many other people clearly love it so much”?

Because you certainly don’t want the people to see only 19 likes and 150 negative comments when you have posted about your free tractor in Nadi.

This is the season, our acting Prime Minister has warned, of jhoot and lasulasu. Beware, he says, of the lies the opposition is telling you.

And yet, his government, which can’t seem to even buy food for evacuation centres on time, seems to be happy buying “likes” which are not real.

Maybe, as elections loom, the Government wants us all to think it is more popular than it really is.

Which suggests a strategy famous among our young, internet-driven tech-savvy global generation: “Fake it till you make it”.

  • RICHARD NAIDU is a Suva lawyer, raised on a farm (but farming cows, not friends). The views expressed in this article are not necessarily those of The Fiji Times.
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