“A fake account is an account where someone is pretending to be something or someone that doesn't exist. Fake accounts can include accounts for fake or made up people, pets, celebrities or organizations.” – Facebook.com
Mark Zuckerberg attempted to reassure audiences at the Munich Security Conference in Germany (2020) that with a team of 35,000 individuals and additional support from AI, Facebook takes down over a million fake accounts a day. These actions, alongside the Transparency Report, suggest that Facebook has content management under some level of control, which should, in turn, assist in rebuilding public trust after an array of scandals (including Cambridge Analytica and the social network's role in distributing fake news).
Facebook's Transparency Report was established in 2013, perhaps in direct response to Edward Snowden – the world's most famous whistle-blower – revealing undisclosed documents about global surveillance programmes. The Transparency Report includes Government Requests for User Data (information about the requests Facebook has had from governments about users), and Community Standards (what is and isn't allowed on Facebook and Instagram) reports. The Community Standards report claims that in Q1-Q3 last year, 5.4 billion fake accounts were removed by Facebook to help protect users.
This figure is higher than in previous years. Could it be that Facebook teams are getting better at tackling fake accounts? Or is it just that there are more counterfeit accounts than ever before? A quick search online will lead you to vendors offering to sell “aged” accounts for a reasonable price, and if you dig a little deeper, fake accounts can be bought. What the customer does with these accounts there onwards could be as simple as boosting a company page with likes, or the more sinister act of littering Facebook with disinformation. More and more deceitful stories and comments are online, and the spread of fake news to influence political outcomes is very real.
The Internet Research Agency (also known as IRA or The Russian Troll Factory), is infamously known for rolling out fake accounts and posts to "use any opportunity to criticize Hillary and the rest (except Sanders and Trump)" in the 2016 U.S. presidential election. Facebook admitted that it hadn't acknowledged co-ordinated campaigns by state actors rapidly enough – but the problem continues to persist. Facebook is in the middle of cracking down on the spread of misinformation from Russian, Iranian, and Saudi Arabian state-backed players, and from telecoms using propaganda tactics to discredit competitors. Vietnam's state-owned Viettel and Myanmar's Mytel have had pages with 265,000 followers taken down due to this behaviour. Their pages linked to $1.2 million worth of Facebook ads, with fake accounts used to criticise competing operators.
Furthermore, people are heavily invested in their Facebook profiles. Accounts are updated regularly with relationships, interests, birth dates, locations, email addresses etc. This data is big business and exploited by bots acting as Facebook friends; the bot account can scan and share a real user's personal data which leaves Facebook audiences in a highly vulnerable state. Data is sold for marketing purposes or used in scams. Other online cons include a masked account engaging with an authentic user to encourage a fabricated sale/financial transaction.
Facebook boasts its success of removing billions of accounts each year but hasn't improved the sign-up process to prevent fake accounts from initially being created. A user is fully equipped to sign up to Facebook with only a name and an email address. No other verification is needed. However, if they do want to include a profile photo to score higher legitimacy points, then they can get a helping hand from websites such as thispersondoesnotexist.com that use AI to generate convincing images of human faces. This is likely to skew facial recognition and other similar data that Facebook relies on too – all the more reason to tighten security during account set-up.
So, is Facebook a social mecca or propaganda epicentre? Either way, manipulation via social media news and influencers is relentless. Individuals, organisations, and governments are distributing fake news through a range of schemes on Facebook. Is the social media giant doing enough to protect its consumers? The transparency report showcases Facebook's efforts to remove these accounts. However, with the company already rebuilding consumer trust it’s difficult to have faith. Plus, if the initial set-up weren't so simple then perhaps there wouldn't be as many as a million accounts to remove each day in the first place.
Social media has more recently acted as a digital platform for disinformation, but methods used by businesses and governments to spread propaganda were established long before the digital era. To understand more about the history of post-truth and fake news on social networks, explore Propaganda in the Social Media Age: A short history on Holoviews.