The real reason fake social media accounts will haunt us for years to come

Over the past week, Facebook, Twitter, and LinkedIn all disclosed that they’ve removed legions of fake accounts from their platforms. Phony accounts on social media are nothing new, but the problem seems to continue even though platforms say they’re working to stop it.

After Facebook and Twitter announced on August 20 that they had removed hundreds of accounts from their platforms that were focused on discrediting the current protests in Hong Kong, LinkedIn revealed that it had blocked or deleted millions of fraudulent accounts.

Platforms like Facebook expect to constantly be adding new active users in order to sell ads and placate stockholders, which means a growing number of users — even if they’re fake — is always better than a shrinking user base, experts said.

“They are deliberately doing nothing and are guilty of willful negligence, and it’s costing society billions of dollars — from which they are profiting,” Aaron Greenspan, a former classmate of Facebook CEO Mark Zuckerberg, who wrote a report estimating that about 50% or more of Facebook’s current monthly active users are fake, told Digital Trends.

LinkedIn said in a blog post that between January and June, 21.6 million fake accounts were either prevented from being created or taken down. LinkedIn said that 19.5 million accounts were prevented from being created in the first place and that 2 million fake accounts were found and deleted via human review and artificial intelligence.

Fake accounts are not just a spam risk: They’re essential to spreading misinformation or propaganda, as seen with the Facebook and Twitter China-based accounts that attempted to discredit the current events in Hong Kong.

“It’s not even a user experience problem or even a platform integrity problem, but one of cybersecurity and national security,” said Brian Keegan, an assistant professor in the Department of Information Science at the University of Colorado Boulder.

Fake accounts mean you don’t know who or what to trust when you’re browsing through your feeds, and Keegan argued that inflated user numbers only benefit the social media companies themselves.

“A key performance metric is growth in users, and that’s a key metric that Wall Street looks at,” Keegan said. “They end up being stuck in a bind because on one hand, Wall Street wants to see user growth, and on the other hand, there’s this systematic problem of fake accounts.”

Digital Trends reached out to Facebook, Twitter, and LinkedIn for further comment on how they are attempting to curb the issue of fake accounts, but we have not yet received a response.

Greenspan’s January report for Plainsite, a legal research initiative, took a look at fake accounts on Facebook by analyzing the company’s quarterly reports on fake accounts.  The company said it deleted about 2.2 billion fake accounts in the first three months of 2019 — or about approximately 283 accounts per second. That number could be much higher now, Greenspan said.

Greenspan himself started a site called The Face Book during his time at Harvard and settled a dispute over a trademark for the site in 2009.

Although Greenspan’s report focused on Facebook, he said fake accounts are a problem across social media platforms.

“I’ve experienced an attempted attack by a fake account on LinkedIn, so it happens,” he said. “But people on LinkedIn expect more from a person’s profile — like a résumé — so it’s easier to detect if something is wrong.”

LinkedIn also has a much greater incentive to ensure users on their platform are actually real people: The company makes money off of job postings and recruitment services. It sells big companies on the idea that it has the right users, not just a large amount of them.

So what can be done? Facebook said in its August 20 blog post that it is constantly improving the technology to weed out fake accounts, but Greenspan says it isn’t doing enough to keep up with the pace of the problem.

“I don’t think they have a lot of good options … they would have to spend billions of dollars,” Greenspan said.

He said that platforms like Twitter and Facebook would have to fundamentally change their products or start over if they truly wanted to put an end fake accounts.

“They are utterly terrified of this issue because it could destroy their entire company,” he said. “It didn’t start out as a scam, but that’s what it’s become.”

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