Live streaming has become a popular and lucrative online activity. On platforms like Twitch, users can watch video games, sports, music festivals, and more, while streamers can post content and earn money doing things they enjoy. That’s the dream for many people.
But fierce competition for viewers - and the money, success, and fame that can come with being noticed - has given rise to unethical practices like viewbotting.
With so many talented artists and business owners flooding the digital space, the conundrum of getting noticed is twisted up in a paradox: likes, listens, and views are more important than ever, yet difficult to legitimately gain. To get ahead, more and more people are turning to fraudulent practices like paying for fake clicks and views.
These tactics are popular because they sometimes* work; however, they are also devaluing the entire system. (*we say “sometimes” because at the end of the day, artificially boosting engagement through digital fraud will only get subpar content so far).
"Viewbotting services" is not just another buzzword. It has damaging effects on artists, broadcasters, advertisers, and the digital community of users and streamers as a whole.
So what exactly is it, and why is it harmful?
What Are Viewbotting Services?
We love watching live video streams. From gaming to drawing to simply being silly on camera, live streaming is thrilling by its very nature: the curtain is pulled back, so to speak, and we get to see snapshots of moments unscripted and unedited. There is a special feeling of connectedness when you’re watching the same thing at the same time with hundreds, thousands, or even millions of other people.
In an increasingly digital world, this type of connection and community draws us in.
It’s not just viewers who love the unique experience of live streaming; broadcasters themselves are able to see in real-time the comments, likes, and reactions dropped on their stream by viewers, adding the exciting element of in-the-moment engagement.
Twitch is the leading platform for live streaming. Some of the most popular Twitch streamers earn thousands of dollars per month for their content, so it's no surprise that a lot of people want in on the action. But with so many streamers competing for viewers on the site, it’s a challenge to gain traction and amass a loyal – and significant – following.
While many broadcasters work hard to put out consistent, high-quality streams and stay active on various social media platforms to bring in a larger audience, “making it” still takes time, patience, and some luck. That’s a tough combination, which is why viewbotting services were created.
According to Twitch.tv, viewbotting is:
…the practice of artificially inflating a live view count, using illegitimate scripts or tools to make the channel appear to have more concurrent viewers than it actually does. Viewbotting may also be accompanied by chat activity bots, which attempt to imitate streamer/viewer interaction.
Essentially, viewbotting services are a fraudulent way of gaining exposure and viewers using bots. The more concurrent views a live stream has, the more likely it is the stream will be pushed to the top of the page and gain even more viewers. With a leg up (even an artificial one), a broadcaster has the chance to surpass other streams, reach new subscribers and earn money.
Viewbotting Services: A Larger Issue
While this all might sound like a relatively harmless way for a new or unknown streamer to give themselves a little boost, viewbotting is a dishonest practice contributing to a larger issue of digital fraud and the erosion of “real” in the online space.
Damaging the Industry
To give you an idea of how serious a problem viewbotting is, in 2018 Twitch filed a lawsuit against several “botmakers” offering viewbotting services to Twitch users. The defendants, a team of seven including Michael and Katherine Anjomi, were ordered to pay nearly $1.4 million to Twitch in damages for trademark infringement, breach of contract, unfair competition and violation of the Anti-Cybersquatting Consumer Protection Act.
Another channel on Twitch, GunsAndGlitch, was banned in 2019 for allegedly using viewbots to climb up the popularity ladder. Below is a screenshot showing the channel’s live stream viewer count reaching over 4k despite having only been around for a week or so.
Photo credit: DEXERTO.COM
Artificial viewbotting services damage the entire live streaming community, preventing honest broadcasters from being discovered by bypassing the very qualities – hard work and good content – that draw an audience to live streams. When live streams are fraudulently pushed to the top, real viewers are more likely to come across the material even though its popularity was forged.
If honest human interest and connection is undermined by bots and fake viewers, the entire industry suffers.
Since the Twitch Partner Program gives streamers the opportunity to earn revenue from ads displayed on their channel, viewbotting is also a form of theft affecting digital advertisers.
It works like this: Advertisers pay Twitch to run ads. While anyone can apply to the Twitch Partner Program, only certain streamers (those with a consistently high follower and viewer count) are eligible to become “Partners” and play these ads on their channel while they live stream. Streamers can run ads and make a commission off the revenue paid to Twitch. The more viewers a stream has, the more money a broadcaster makes.
If a streamer is using viewbotting services those ads aren’t being seen by real people, yet the streamer is still getting paid a commission. This means advertisers are essentially dumping their money into bot views.
Digital ad fraud is costing the advertising industry billions of dollars: The problem of digital fraudsters using fake views, clicks, and likes as money-making schemes is so pervasive that advertisers are estimated to lose $100 billion by 2023, according to Juniper Research.
Viewbotting is part of a wide-reaching – and increasing – problem.
Viewbotting Services and Click Fraud: Siblings or Cousins?
If viewbotting sounds suspiciously familiar, that’s because it’s a relative of another type of digital fraud you’ve likely heard of – click fraud (with click farms being one of the main enablers behind this industry).
As a quick refresher, a click farm is made up of large groups of people paid to click on ads or social media posts all day, hurting competitor budgets and online advertisers while fraudulently increasing the click farmer’s revenue.
The target is different but the concept is the same: beat your competitors by artificially boosting your own content and earn money while you do it.
No matter how closely related viewbotting services are to click farms, the rise in popularity of both these unethical practices shows just how rampant digital fraud is.
Data Transparency and Viewbotting Services
Data transparency is essential in today’s world. The more time we spend online, the more we want to make sure our data and privacy are being protected.
Online businesses have the task of providing personalized experiences to consumers while carefully managing all the personal data collected to provide these experiences. If people start to think their data is being misused, trust and loyalty quickly break down.
Platforms like Twitch collect data to provide the services we log on to use, deliver the right content recommendations, and prevent fraud and abuse. The personalization you experience when logging on to browse pages and watch live streams is directly related to the information collected about you.
If that sounds a little uncomfortable, that’s because it is. According to Twitch’s Privacy Notice, automatically collected information includes your IP address, unique user ID, device and browser type, software and system type, and more.
That’s a lot of personal information.
We trust that all that data is being collected and carefully protected for good reason – so that we experience content that is unique to us. We don’t want to go online and sift through a mess of irrelevant videos and streams; we want products and services that play to our different interests and tastes.
If online fraudsters are manipulating the system to push their content to the top via unethical techniques like viewbotting, at what point does trust between the consumer (you and me) and the service (Twitch and other live streaming platforms) erode?
With all the personal information Twitch collects, it’s crucial you and I can trust what we receive in exchange. The content we see should be visible for honest reasons.
How to Beat Viewbotting
Remember the $1.4 million lawsuit Twitch filed against botmakers? That was a huge win in the fight against viewbotting.
Twitch also lays out steps you can take to beat viewbotting on their webpage, including tips for reporting anyone offering botting services and channels gaining traction via artificially inflated counts.
Viewbotting can also be used as a weapon; since Twitch has made it clear they will ban anyone using viewbots, streamers could find themselves a victim of a targeted viewbotting attack by another streamer. If you’re a streamer and think your stream is being hijacked by viewbots, Twitch lays out a plan of action:
- Report: You may report any user(s) claiming to be responsible or offering botting services to you by filing a user report. For more information on how to file a user report, see this help article.
- Don't Panic: While being botted may be stressful and a distraction, try not to panic and carry on as you would otherwise.
- Stay Civil: Botting can bring a lot of attention and you may be asked about your viewership. Feel free to calmly explain the situation or ignore such questions altogether.
The reporting methods laid out by Twitch are a good start to fight viewbotting and Twitch itself has shown that anyone engaging in viewbotting will pay the consequences.
It’s important to remember that viewbotting is part of a larger issue of digital fraud affecting online advertisers and marketers, artists, business owners, and consumers. With a better understanding of the various forms of fraud, you can take measures to protect yourself from this pervasive issue. Another option to consider if fake likes and clicks are affecting your business is using a trusted fraud detection software.
Connective and entertaining experiences like live streaming shouldn’t be hijacked and manipulated by bots. Technology should exist to make our lives better and bring us together. To make sure this is the case, everyone operating in the digital space will need to combat unethical practices like viewbotting together through awareness and action.