PARIS – More than a million Facebook users like the idea of hosting the 2024 Olympic Games in Los Angeles. Many of them, oddly enough, from Pakistan.
A report prepared for reporters says most of LA’s likes have come in the past six weeks from far away from Southern California.
“The fan growth evolution for the LA2024 Facebook page does seem suspicious,” said analyst Michaela Branova, whose Prague, Czech Republic-based firm, Socialbakers, drew up the report. “Countries such as Bangladesh and Pakistan suddenly spike from almost zero to tens of thousands of fans within a few days in February.”
A spokesman for the LA campaign, Jeff Millman, would not comment Monday on the team’s social media strategy.
There are a variety of possible explanations for the surge. Media attention can draw people to a Facebook page. Facebook advertising campaigns can be tailored to boost the number of likes a page receives, while a number of shady vendors offer bundles of “fake likes,” many of which come from the countries like Pakistan and Bangladesh. Some advertisers have complained of inadvertently racking up “fake likes” under some circumstances.
Reporters asked Socialbakers to examine both the Paris and Los Angeles Olympic campaigns’ Facebook pages.
By the end of 2016, Los Angeles had 209,000 or so likes, nearly all of which came from the United States, according to Socialbakers. Paris had 62,000 or so fans, 80 percent of which came from France.
By last week both sides’ figures had grown. Paris’ Facebook page tripled its following, but four out of five endorsements came from France, with many of the others originating in Algeria and Tunisia, former French colonies.
Los Angeles saw an explosion in support from Bangladesh, Pakistan, Nepal, Indonesia, Egypt, India, Afghanistan and other low-income countries, according to Socialbakers’ research. In Bangladesh alone, the number of supporters of the U.S. Olympic bid rose from a few dozen to 113,335 in a month-and-a-half. In Pakistan, the number of supporters leapt from 55 to 99,336 over the same period.
Socialbakers’ report said that more than 700,000 of the 1 million accounts that liked LA 2024’s Facebook page had done so within the past six weeks. The surge helped LA blow past Paris (about 235,000 likes) and hit the million mark at an opportune moment. An Olympics conference started Tuesday in Denmark, the first of three events between now and September, when the International Olympic Committee is scheduled to pick one city over the other.
Socialbakers said it wasn’t working for the LA or Paris bid, and that its work was transparent.
“It’s all publicly available, taken directly from the Facebook API,” said spokeswoman Claire Wilson, referring to Facebook’s data interface.
Branova and outside experts said it was possible that a large chunk of LA’s social media support was drummed up by advertisements or other paid methods.
“It’s consistent with what you’d expect to see from paid endorsements,” said Daniel Mochon, who teaches social media marketing at Tulane University’s A. B. Freeman School of Business. “They tend to come from developing countries … You’re going to see sudden spikes that are not necessarily tied to anything external.”
Social media support has been invoked as a selling point by the LA bid, which is locked in competition with Paris for the chance to host the Summer Games. On Monday, LA 2024 released a statement crowing about how its campaign had passed the 1 million follower mark.
That was endorsed by Nathan Cowan of Seattle-based digital marketing analytics firm Rival IQ, which wasn’t involved in the report. Cowan said that while hadn’t seen the raw data, Socialbakers’ work “appears to be entirely accurate.”
Cowan echoed Socialbakers’ suspicions about LA’s numbers, noting the “extreme spike in followers” and their unusual geographic breakdown.
Paris 2024 officials declined to comment. Facebook declined comment, saying in an email that it was up to advertisers to disclose how they promoted their pages. The IOC did not offer any comment, but the group’s rules of conduct note that promotion of a city’s bid must take place “with dignity and moderation.”