Sullivan said that since August, the company has put in place an automated system to purge fake “likes.” The company said it has between 150 and 300 staff that apply machine learning and human skills to weed out fraud.
Flags are raised if a user sends out hundreds of friend requests at a time, Sullivan said, or likes hundreds of pages simultaneously, or most obvious of all, posts a link to a site that is known to contain a virus.
Facebook users are sometimes asked to verify their friends’ profiles. “Is this your friend’s real name?” they are asked. Suspected fakes are warned. Depending on what they do on the site, accounts can be suspended.
Last month, Facebook announced new partnerships with anti-virus companies. Facebook users can now download free or paid for anti-virus coverage to guard against malware.
“It’s something we have been pretty effective at all along,” Sullivan said.
Facebook’s new aggressiveness toward fake “likes” became noticeable in September when brand pages started seeing their total number of fans dip noticeably. Rihanna lost 22,000 on one day, out of 60 million, according to an analytics company, PageData. An average brand page, Facebook said at the time, would lose less than 1 percent of its fans.
“When a page and fan connect on Facebook, we want to ensure that connection involves a real person interested in hearing from a specific page and engaging with that brand’s content,” Facebook wrote in a blog post.
However, the thriving market for fakery makes it hard to keep up with the problem. Gaston Memorial, for instance, first detected a fake page in its name in August; three days later, it vanished. The fake page popped up again on Oct. 4, and this time filled up quickly with the loud denunciations of the Obama administration. Dallas Wilborn, the hospital’s public relations manager, said her office tried to leave a voicemail message for Facebook, but was disconnected. An e-mail response from the social network ruled that the fake page did not violate its terms of service. The hospital submitted more evidence, explaining that the impostor was using its company logo.
Eleven days later, the hospital said, Facebook found in its favor. However, by then, the local newspaper, the Gaston Gazette, had written about the matter and the fake page had mysteriously disappeared.
Facebook declined to comment on the incident and pointed only to its general statement of rights and responsibilities.
The election season seems to have swelled the market for fakery.
In Washington State, two groups fighting over a gay marriage referendum locked horns over “likes” on Facebook. The pro-gay marriage side pointed to the Facebook page of its rival, Preserve Marriage Washington: It collected thousands of “likes” in a few short spurts, and during those peaks, the pro-gay marriage group said, the preponderance of them came from far-flung cities like Bangkok and Vilnius, Lithuania, whose residents would likely have little reason to care about a state referendum in Washington. The “likes” then fell as suddenly as they had emerged, as though they had been purged.
The accusations were leveled on the pro-gay marriage group’s Web site. Preserve Marriage Washington in turn denied them on its Facebook page: “We have told our vendors explicitly: ‘Do not buy likes.’ We are investigating these claims.”