Falsehoods threaten Facebook's credibility

New York TimesNovember 17, 2012 

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

But in October, another Facebook page for the hospital popped up. This one posted denunciations of President Barack Obama and what it derided as “Obamacare.” It swiftly gathered hundreds of followers, and the anti-Obama screeds picked up “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,” they posted Oct. 8, “and appreciate the support of our followers.”

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 websites.

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 distinguish 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 also can ruin the credibility of search results for the social search engine that Facebook says it is building.

Facebook’s safeguards

Facebook says it has always taken the problem seriously, and recently stepped up efforts to cull fakes 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.

Sullivan declined to say what portion of the company’s now 1 billion-plus users are false, duplicates or undesirable. The company quantified the problem in June, in responding to an inquiry by the 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 150 to 300 staff members who 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 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.

In October, Facebook announced new partnerships with anti-virus companies. Facebook users can now download free or paid anti-virus coverage to guard against malware.

“It’s something we have been pretty effective at all along,” Sullivan said.

Keeping up with fakery

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 out of 60 million on one day, according to 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.

But 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 Oct. 4, and this time filled up quickly with the loud denunciations of the Obama administration. Dallas P. Wilborn, the hospital’s public relations manager, said her office tried to leave a voice mail message to Facebook but was disconnected; an email 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. But by then, 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.

Discretion vs. fakery

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

The ubiquity of Facebook, some users say, compels them to be somewhat fake. Colleen Callahan was a college senior 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, she had 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 advertise on Facebook.

News & Observer is pleased to provide this opportunity to share information, experiences and observations about what's in the news. Some of the comments may be reprinted elsewhere in the site or in the newspaper. We encourage lively, open debate on the issues of the day, and ask that you refrain from profanity, hate speech, personal comments and remarks that are off point. Thank you for taking the time to offer your thoughts.

Commenting FAQs | Terms of Service