On April 1 2021, the following post to Reddit’s r/interestingasfuck hit r/all, purportedly depicting a low-paid “click farm” employee on the job — sitting in front of dozens of iPhones and smartphones, presumably engaged in click fraud:
The image (titled “A click farm in Asia where low paid workers are used to inflate video views and trick advertisers to believe that their ads are running successfully”) showed no fewer than 75 iPhones and other devices on a three-tier workstation. Three red lines were added to the image, but it was unclear what the lines were intended to highlight, and no source or contextual information about the photograph was included on the post.
The top comment on the thread linked to an off-site blog post, and the comment stated:
I thought this was an April Fools post, but it’s actually real. More photos of the place, which the article says has over 10,000 phones, here[.]
That user linked to a December 2018 Core77 article with the headline, “Eye-Opening Photos and Video Taken Inside Illegal Click Farms,” and it primarily consisted of similar images, stating:
Click farms set up banks of inexpensive computers and smartphones, and staff them with low-paid workers who artificially boost your social media accounts, download apps to boost rankings, load the same YouTube video to inflate views, or repetitively click on ads to fool advertisers into thinking they’re getting their money’s worth. Seeing inside these click farm operations is truly astonishing[.]
By the [by], to set up a click farm you needn’t buy tons of phones. This farm in Thailand, which was reportedly set up by a trio of Chinese nationals to boost WeChat stats, had less than 500 phones–but rotated nearly 350,000 SIM cards between them[.]
Although the post explained the putative purpose of “click farms” (to boost rankings, view counts, ratings, and other engagement metrics), it was light on specifics about the images — and no information about the image shown here was included in that post.
A reverse image search indicated the image was first crawled in February 2015; it was clearly captured before that date. The oldest crawled version we located was shared to Reddit-linked site Imgur on February 6 2015, where the same image was labeled “How they Tinder in China…”:
That particular finding was something of a dead end, because the earliest iteration of the image was not attached to a news item other explanatory content. Instead, an Imgur commenter joked that the photograph showed someone using a dating app in China, and offered no information about its origin.
Another related item we located was a 2012 Engadget post about a “rumor” involving click farms. The image, however, did not appear there:
A Touch Arcade forum user is making allegations that a company is offering to boost the ranking of free App Store apps using bots. According to “walterkaman,” the unnamed company will set up automated, repeated downloads of a client’s app in order to push it into Apple’s Top Free charts. A representative from the shady ad company pointed out eight games on the Top 25 Free chart that were promoted in this manner, walterkaman said.
The company was not named, and the forum user’s story remains unverified.
We further found a February 5 2015 TechInAsia.com report, “A viral photo in China shows how to manipulate App Store rankings the hard way,” published one day prior to the Imgur post above. It featured the photograph of the woman shared to Reddit in April 2021, and it even provided a stated source for the image:
A photo of a woman sitting in front of what appear to be dozens of iPhone 5Cs has gone viral in China. While few details about the photo’s origins are available, media have speculated she works at a Chinese App Store ranking manipulation farm. Her job is to download, install, and uninstall specific apps over and over again to boost their App Store rankings.
The table she’s working at seems to be specially designed for this purpose, and there’s another one across from her in the background.
Accompanying the photo on some sites is a screenshot displaying the supposed prices for this service. To get into the top 10 free apps costs RMB 70,000 (US$11,200), and keeping it there will run you another RMB 405,000 (US$65,000) per week. The third column is the monthly fare, and negotiations take place over popular messaging service QQ.
The original photo was tweeted on Weibo with the caption, “Hard-working App Store ranking manipulation employee.”
In that excerpt, “tweeted on Weibo” linked to what was presumably a live Weibo post as of February 5 2015. Six years later, in April 2021, the link was defunct and the original context missing. That article ended with the following paragraph:
For the record, we want to reiterate that this is just a viral photo. We do not know when, where, or by whom it was taken, and cannot confirm this is actually a ranking manipulation farm.
CultOfMac.com aggregated the TechInAsia.com reporting on the same date (February 5 2015), but it didn’t add any additional insight into what was then a viral, sourceless image. In contrast with TechInAsia.com’s closing disclaimer, CultOfMac.com’s headline was “Crazy iPhone rig shows how Chinese workers manipulate App Store rankings.”
On February 12 2015, The Verge addressed the photograph, concluding:
All of this effort and expense might look like a lot of trouble just to get an app into the App Store’s top ten, but for a desperate developer it’s a logical step. Apple is right to boast about how much money is made from the App Store, but the hard truth is that most apps fail. Apple does its best to shine a spotlight on worthy apps, but it’s not like it can put every bit of software in the App Store’s featured section. For a developer whose pride and joy is languishing in obscurity, budgeting for a quick boost up the download charts must be tempting.
Of course, there’s no way to verify these images, but as Tech in Asia notes, a quick search on Chinese e-commerce sites brings up plenty of vendors offering exactly these services. If this isn’t what a App Store ranking farm looks like then we don’t know what is.
From there, the image popped up from time to time on social media and in blog posts, often used to describe what a click farm might look like. However, the already-thin context available when the photograph first emerged was stripped away by this time, and the image became associated heavily with the context of app store manipulation.
On April 1 2021, the “click farm in Asia” image was one of the most popular posts on Reddit’s r/all (originally shared to r/interestingasfuck), and discourse about gaming algorithms was re-ignited. However, the TechInAsia.com post appeared to be the source for most reporting on the image at the time it emerged — and that site disclaimed that it did not not know “when, where, or by whom it was taken, and cannot confirm this is actually a ranking manipulation farm.” That information remained unknown, and we have therefore rated the image Decontextualized — in addition to the unverifiable elements, the photograph was more than six years old at the time of its circulation in April 2021.