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

Sat, Nov 17, 2012 - Page 9

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.

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.”

A spokesman for the group, Chip White, said this week that he had nothing more to add. Facebook declined to comment on the contretemps.

The research firm Gartner estimates that while less than 4 percent of all social media interactions are false today, that figure could rise to more than 10 percent by 2014. The temptations are too great as brands compete for popularity, Gartner said.

The ubiquity of Facebook, some users say, compels them to be, well, a little bit fake. Colleen Callahan is among them. She was a senior in college when she started getting slightly nervous about the pictures that a prospective employer might find on Facebook. Like most of her college friends, she said, there was a preponderance of party pictures.

“It would be OK if people saw it, but I didn’t want people to interpret it differently,” she said.

So Callahan tweaked her profile. She became Colleen Skisalot.

(“I am a big skier,” she explained.)

None of her friends snitched.

Facebook didn’t ask for any verification of her new name. It stuck. She still hasn’t changed it, though she is no longer afraid of what prospective employers might think. She has a job — with an advertising agency in Boston, some of whose clients, it turns out, advertise on Facebook.