Sat, Nov 17, 2012 - Page 9 News List

Facebook’s ‘false faces’ seriously undermine its credibility

With fakery found all over the Internet, the social network says it is stepping up efforts to weed out false profiles and fake ‘likes’ from its site

By Somini Sengupta  /  NY Times News Service, SAN FRANCISCO

Illustration: Kevin Sheu

The Facebook page for Gaston Memorial Hospital in Gastonia, North Carolina, offers a chicken salad recipe to encourage healthy eating, tips on avoiding injuries at Zumba classes and pictures of staff members dressed up at Halloween. Typical stuff for a hospital in a small town.

However, last month, another Facebook page for the hospital popped up. This one posted denunciations of US President Barack Obama and what it derided as “Obamacare.” It swiftly gathered hundreds of followers, and the anti-Obama screeds picked up many “likes.” Officials at the hospital, scrambling to figure out who was behind it and how to get it taken down, turned to their real Facebook page for damage control.

“We apologize for any confusion and appreciate the support of our followers,” they posted on Oct. 8.

The fake page came down 11 days later, as mysteriously as it had come up. The hospital says it has no clue who was behind it.

Fakery is all over the Internet. Twitter, which allows pseudonyms, is rife with fake followers, and has been used to spread false rumors, as it was during Hurricane Sandy. False reviews are a constant problem on consumer Web sites.

Gaston Memorial’s experience is an object lesson in the problem of fakery on Facebook. For the world’s largest social network, it is an especially acute problem, because it calls into question the site’s basic premise. Facebook has sought to establish itself as a place for real identity on the Web. As the company tells its users: “Facebook is a community where people use their real identities.”

It goes on to advise: “The name you use should be your real name as it would be listed on your credit card, student ID, etc.”

Fraudulent “likes” damage the trust of advertisers, who want clicks from real people they can sell to, and whom Facebook now relies on to make money. Fakery can also ruin the credibility of search results for the social search engine that Facebook says it is building.

Facebook says it has always taken the problem seriously and recently stepped up efforts to cull fake accounts from the site.

“It’s pretty much one of the top priorities for the company all the time,” said Joe Sullivan, who is in charge of security at Facebook.

The fakery problem on Facebook comes in many shapes. False profiles and brand pages are fairly easy to create; hundreds can pop up simultaneously, sometimes with the help of robots, and often they persuade real users into friending them in a bid to spread malware. Fake Facebook friends and likes are sold on the Web like trinkets at a bazaar, directed at those who want to boost their popularity. Fake coupons for meals and gadgets can appear on Facebook newsfeeds, designed to trick the unwitting into revealing their personal information.

Somewhat more benignly, some college students use fake or disguised names to protect their Facebook content from prying future employers.

Sullivan declined to say what portion of the company’s now 1 billion-plus users are false, duplicate or undesirable. The company quantified the problem in June, in responding to an inquiry by the US Securities and Exchange Commission in the process of going public. At that time, the company said that of its 855 million active users, 8.7 percent, or 83 million, were duplicates, false, or “undesirable,” for instance, because they spread spam.

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