Yemeni Youth Confront a Click Farm

Our Siraj project recently targeted an online “click farm” that was victimizing vulnerable Yemenis with phony promises of cash. We helped local youth limit the damage and build Yemeni digital resilience.

As people everywhere increasingly look online for new opportunities, they also face new digital threats. Digital scams, extortion, harassment and disinformation inflict real damage on real people—psychological, social and economic. And when digital violence strikes communities in humanitarian crisis zones, the impacts can be severe.

In conflict zones like Yemen, money-making scams are luring desperate people with promises of relief. Shaming, harassment and other online gender-based violence (GBV) is fuelling fear and anxiety. Its chilling effects keep some women and girls out of work and school. Digitally-amplified disinformation is stoking hate, disrupting public health efforts and undermining NGOs’ credibility.

The bitter irony: the digital technologies that can empower people in crisis can also be weaponized against them. And that is why we have developed Siraj (Arabic for light, or lantern).

Siraj is our latest playbook for combating digital harms in crisis zones. It harnesses proven, AI-supported methods for tracking disinformation, but the key has been to welcome local youth into the process. That’s exactly what we’ve done in our latest pilot project, in Yemen. We’ve trained a group of engaged youth as frontline champions who detect digital harms and co-lead community responses. And a recent mobilization against one virulent scam shows how this can work.

The scam: “Starlike”

Don’t be a scammer’s puppet (campaign imagery)

In August 2022, our Yemeni youth champions saw a new scheme circulating in their social media feeds and chat groups. The “Starlike” scheme promised cash payment for doing simple online actions at home: clicking links, watching videos, liking posts and so on. This was an all-virtual implementation of a “click farm”—where fraudsters recruit low-paid workers to fake online activity.

At best, click farms are a blight on cyberspace. They generate phony online activity: web hits, video views, post “likes,” account follows, and so on. They’re harder to detect than traffic-faking bots. For paying clients, they build/erode brands, create illusions of popularity, validate disinformation, skew search rankings, and distort ad revenue. Statistica forecasts that costs of digital ad fraud could reach US$100-billion by 2023.

Today’s Yemen is fertile ground for foreign schemers. After eight years of continual conflict, 14 million Yemenis face food insecurity, 3 million have been displaced, and unemployment is rife. That’s the kind of desperation Starlike tapped into with promises of quick cash rewards.

Here’s what our analysts found. The Starlike.cc domain was registered anonymously in May 2022, for a website hosted in Hong Kong. Its web traffic grew through the summer in a handful of MENA countries, with Yemen topping the list. By September, the site was drawing 1.4 million monthly visitors. As much as a third of that was from Yemen, making it the country’s 34th most popular website. Ultimately, we believe as many as 10,000 Yemenis joined directly in Starlike activities.

Here’s how it worked.

With a free Starlike membership, participants could complete up to two daily assignments, each worth around $0.70 (all figures in U.S. dollars). But then new membership levels appeared, with membership fees attached. These offered more daily tasks and higher earnings—i.e. the promise of much higher pay. If a member’s account balance couldn’t cover the upgrade, they could either pay cash or recruit new members for rewards. Some members told us that they had to recruit new members as a condition of withdrawing what they’d already earned.

So this click farm was also a pyramid scheme. Members rushed to find new recruits, especially through local chat groups. Some paid in their own money to move up the membership ladder faster, hoping to earn more. And of course, very few ever saw payment for their click-work.

One user told us he recruited 45 friends to join Starlike. Together, they lost nearly $20,000. That’s an average of $435 each, or 20 percent of the average Yemeni income. All told, we estimate  some 10,000 Yemeni users have lost an average of $100. That’s $1 million extracted from Yemen’s vulnerable population. Some stark perspective: the World Food Program estimates $1 million could supply vital food aid for a month to more than a million gravely food-insecure Yemenis.

Heard on Siraj’s Facebook page:

I spent one month working for them and I got a balance of $100. When I asked them to make a withdrawal from my account. They gave me impossible conditions to be able to do that like inviting an unreasonable number of friends to subscribe.

Abdelmalek

I’m a very conservative person and it is not easy to get involved in these kinds of schemes. I trusted a friend who asked me to join and unfortunately I lost money

Meme

The response: Yemeni youth fight back

Let’s stop feeding scammers (campaign imagery)

Our Siraj youth champions substantially shaped our response to this scam. This is a group of 25 Yemenis, aged 20-30, who’ve been convened by our Taiz-based local partner, the Sheba Youth Foundation for Development. Internet-savvy and engaged in their communities, our champions underwent intensive training in recognizing and responding to digital harms.

Those young champions are also the ones who raised the alarm when they saw Starlike members recruiting in their online channels.That enabled our team to analyze the scheme’s roots and regional penetration using AI tools. This in turn shaped polling to better understand how Yemenis were engaging with scams like Starlike.

Finally, our youth champions co-designed a public fightback campaign: Think Twice Before Clicking Once. Through social media and local radio, it exposed Starlike and similar scams, while sharing practical advice on staying safe online.

Campaign elements included…

  • Two 15-minute episodes for Radio Lana 91.9 FM (recorded here and here)
  • A 1-minute animated “explainer” video (110,000 views on Facebook)
  • A 6-minute “rant” video from Yemeni influencer Mazen El-Saqqaf (170,000 views)
  • A dozen high-value social media posts, blending visuals with digital safety advice
  • Extensive engagement on Siraj’s Facebook page (3,600+ comments)
  • A community tracking form, for anyone to report signs of new scams

At the same time, Siraj’s youth team led public awareness sessions and exposed click-farms in their own online channels. Sharing campaign assets strengthened their credibility and gave others a way to join in. One user named Ayed shared: “For one week, I was sleeping for very few hours because I joined a Telegram group for Starlike that has over 83K members. I sent private messages to every new member trying to save them from the trap.”

WATCH the Siraj explainer video that launched the fightback campaign:

 

Impact: Building Yemeni digital resilience

Building Yemeni digital resilience (campaign imagery)

Throughout October, more than 230,000 users across Yemen engaged with Siraj’s campaign on Facebook. More than 118,000 connected from Sanaa (the capital), 40,000 from Aden, 37,000 from Taiz, and 22,000 from Ibb. Nearly 100,000 clicked through to get more information on click farms and digital safety. Campaign posts generated more than 3,600 online comments. And that’s on top of public awareness through radio exposure and personal outreach.

As this campaign played out, Starlike web traffic began to shrink. Visits had been growing steadily through the summer, peaking at 1.4 million for the month of September. Then through October, our campaign month, visits fell 64 percent to 0.5 million—and have continued to decline. How directly did our campaign contribute to Starlike’s decline? We can’t now for sure. But the team was pleased to see Yemen’s portion of Starlike’s traffic shrink from 26 percent (JulySeptember average) to under 6 percent.

This campaign was a rich opportunity to boost public awareness about digital threats and safety generally. The presence of a tangible villain provided an attention-grabbing focus. On the campaign’s Facebook page, some users disclosed that they were current or past victims of these scams. This provided a “hot” environment to share guidance on avoiding digital harms. It also provided a window to support victims in feeling less isolation and shame in their loss.

Pre- and post-campaign polling showed encouraging growth in digital resilience. Before the campaign, 28 percent of respondents disclosed that they were already Starlike.cc members, and only 25 percent strongly distrusted click farms. After the campaign, 73 percent said they now distrusted click farms—and not just the Starlike “bad apple” click farm. And 100 percent said their community would benefit from more digital safety awareness.

Moving forward from here

This campaign offered new validation for Siraj’s approach to combating digital harms in crisis zones. Central analysis uncovered the scam’s mechanism, scope and penetration. But it was our youth champions who detected it early and helped shape a local response that worked. Being embedded in their communities helped them reach people effectively. (This is something the scammers themselves figured out long ago: they need frontline voices to validate their message.)

Scaling up an approach like Siraj could help more people. Once exposed, digital fraudsters can easily pull up stakes, rebrand if necessary, and seek new targets elsewhere. We saw that happen when web-traffic stats showed Starlike shifting in October from Yemen to other countries (especially Libya). A wider network of Siraj teams—say, across the MENA region—could block that spread by sharing intelligence, campaign materials and best practices.

In the meantime, every vulnerable Yemeni protected from digital harm matters. Every dollar not extracted from a humanitarian crisis zone is worth more than most people realize. And Siraj continues to respond to new digital threats as they appear.

Learn more about Siraj