Catching a Robot Catfish in Social Media Support Groups

Having a chronic illness, like multiple sclerosis, can be lonely and isolating. Sometimes it is hard to talk to your loved ones because, try as they might, they just don’t understand what you are going through. Before the internet, in order to find other people with similar circumstances, one would have to go out and join a support group. However, this would involve leaving the house which was not always possible due to disability, adding to patients’ isolation.

Then came social media and the concept of the online support group. Now all of a sudden, I can find people like myself who have experienced similar health scares. Sharing statuses, pictures, poems and blogs about how we feel about the hand we’ve been dealt in open forums free of judgment and sympathetic ears.

These groups dodn’t feel anonymous either. Even though I’m not physically meeting most of the people, there is an instant bond. I find myself checking status updates, liking posts and commenting when I can. I think it is fair to say that most of the people in these online support groups are there to help.

There are, however, catfish living in the social support group sea that prey on the vulnerability of people like you and I. There are two types of catfish lurking in the social media support groups: robot catfish and chameleon catfish. In this blog, I will focus on the Robot Catfish and I’ll give you some tips and trick about how to spot them, catch them and fry them.

Robot Catfish prey on vulnerable people in social media with spam posts to fake websites


Hall, L. (2008, July 13). Please don’t feed the fish sign. Retrieved October 28, 2015, from https://www.flickr.com/photos/pr0digie/3802739974

Robot Catfish

According to the Urban Dictionary, “A catfish is someone who pretends to be someone they’re not using Facebook or other social media to create false identities, particularly to pursue deceptive online romances.” Websites are creating robot catfish to lure people to their websites. The robot catfish appears harmless until you understand the motive. The robot catfish is a fake profile set up by a company to drive people to their site to read content. While this might seem harmless at first, these websites are content thieves trying to use you for advertising dollars. Most of their content is plagiarized from other websites, not cited properly and contains no link back to the owner of the intellectual property.

I have two problems with the robot catfish. One, they are sending vulnerable people who are in search of critical health information to a site designed solely for advertising dollars. This means they are not posting responsibly and can often times send you to sites that have not been reviewed by medical professionals. Furthermore, those sites are reposting content without permission. This is plagiarism and the operators of these websites should be fined and their content taken offline. However, no one polices the internet for plagiarism. Take it from me as I know firsthand what it is like to have your content stolen, reposted and no recourse to fight.

How do you Spot a Robot Catfish?

Robot catfish are fake FB profiles that try to get you to visit fake medical websitesOn the surface the robot catfish profile is pretty standard. Generally a mid-thirties guy or girl, non-descript. It is hard to pick them out of a crowd based on looks alone. Actually, it takes about two or three of their posts before you see the pattern.Robot catfish are fake FB profiles that try to get you to visit fake medical websites

There is typically a one sentence post about a blog article. Commonly the one sentence post has some kind of misspelling or improper English, leading me to believe that most of the websites that spawn robot catfish are not from an English speaking country.

The next clue is that if you comment on the post, there will be no response. The robot catfish shares an article link, but never swims back to respond to any comments. If you suspect a robot catfish, click on the profile. Often times the “About” the person information is incorrect. Because these profiles are detected so often in groups, the robots change name and gender, but rarely update there “About” section. For example, there was an attractive 20 something year old man who was from New York, but worked as a Stay at Home Mom in Los Angeles.Robot catfish are fake FB profiles that try to get you to visit fake medical websites part 3

How do you Fry a Robot Catfish

The best thing you can do is report these robot catfish to the social media support group administrator. That administrator can then delete the robot catfish from the site. The problem is that they spawn again as a new name and a new face posting the same plagiarized material. If this becomes a chronic problem the support group administrator can change the settings of the group to ensure that the robots can’t find it.

The best remedy is to avoid the posts all together. If the title of an article interests you, then go ahead and copy and paste it into google. You’ll find the originating site. Don’t give these robot catfish a high click-through rate. Pretty soon they’ll overtake your support group and you’ll lose interest in that group.

Remember, don’t feed the fish. Clicking, liking or sharing these posts enables companies to think it is alright to steal other website’s content and advertise to people like you and I. If you think someone is a fake profile, report it to your group administrator or website administrator as spam. Use Google to find the original article so you are not subject to spam advertisements. Remember, a real person should engage your response with a response. If there is no response to any of the posts, it is probably a robot catfish.

Fried Catfish


Catfish Cove Restaurant, Sunnyvale, TX. (n.d.). Retrieved October 28, 2015, from http://www.catfishcoverestaurant.com/sitebuildercontent/sitebuilderpictures/whole3.JPG

This is dedicated to my friend Tamara​ and how hard she works to moderate our MS support group. Thank you for your work and dedication to making our group a safe place to share our stories and be ourselves. 

Categories

About the Author:

8 Comments

  1. Matt,

    Thank you for helping to spread the word about this pervasive problem which I described on MS.net – http://multiplesclerosis.net/living-with-ms/buyer-beware-suspicious-websites/

    After
    – identifying 75+ separate websites created to steal and post our articles (yes, I saw one of my own pieces re-published on at least 10 websites)
    – documenting more than 160 “fake” FB profiles being used to spam MS groups
    – reporting said profiles and spam to FB and group admins
    – witnessing about 75% of the profiles being removed (argh, FB didn’t take my word for it that some of the profiles were conducting themselves against FB standards)
    – encountering some group admins who are supporting this practice

    I had to step away and stop looking at the crap going on in our groups. It was taking way too much of my time and energy away from productive interactions with real people with real needs.

    But if anybody wants to pick up where I left off, I’ve got pages and pages of spreadsheets and graphics connecting many of the dots related to websites, domain registrants, FB profiles, etc. It’s way too much information to include on a single page.

    This kind of stuff drives me crazy.

    Lisa

    • Matt Cavallo

      Lisa,

      Thank you for shedding light on the problem. It drives me crazy, too. I have been plagiarized as well and told I had no recourse to fight it. Both of us are doing the best we can despite our illnesses and should not be preyed upon by the sham websites. They pose like they are there to help us, but really they are just stealing our content and chasing ad dollars. Thank you for your advocacy and support in addressing this problem.

      Take care,

      Matt

  2. laurak54

    Unfortunately these catfish turn up everywhere and this is why for the few groups i am admin for on FB I don’t automatically accept every request to join nor do I quickly accept friend requests from people I do not know. My tips include-

    1) if the request comes from a person who has just joined FB in the past 30 days or so, think twice.

    2) if the person already belongs to dozens or even hundreds of other FB groups, you have to wonder when they have time

    3) click on their profile and see what is on their homepage – usually not much beyond a token picture or two – it’s as if they don’t exist. Oh yeah, that’s exactly right because they are not real.

    It only takes a few extra minutes to be smart about who you let join your groups or become your friends …..

    Now if only FB would listen to the concerns and do something….

    Laura

    • Matt Cavallo

      Those are great points, Laura! Not only does FB not policy this fraudulent activity, one a robot gets exposed they just are reprogrammed to change causes. For example, Allen Harris is no longer posting about MS, he has been reprogrammed to post articles about Lupus. Thank you for all your hard work and for making your groups a safer place to share!

  3. Great post Matt. I have struggled a few times with “outing” a NON-robot MS Support group profile. The last thing one wants to do is to question or doubt ANYONE that is legitimately struggling with the myriad of issues that come along with this “lovely” disease. Yet more than once I have been hit with just a nagging that things that weren’t adding up. Unfortunately (or perhaps fortunately to save others from getting hurt) it ended up that I was right each of the times that this has happened.
    Cheers!
    Meg

Leave a Reply