In early February, Facebook reported that 76 million of their accounts were found to be fake last year. Just over 7 percent of Facebook accounts were duplicates or not held by real people, the company affirmed in a regulatory filing. And there’s a similar scenario with Twitter: over 27 percent of the top 10 Twitter accounts’ followers are fake, according to Status People, a social media management platform for businesses. Status People recently released a “fake follower check,” which allows any Twitter user to find out how many of their followers are counterfeit. Though Facebook and Twitter are some of the social media sites most affected by the underground economy of unauthentic profiles, other social networks, including YouTube and LinkedIn, are by no means immune.
Gary Bahadur, a social media security expert and author of Securing the Clicks: Network Security in the Age of Social Media, confirms that, “attackers use fake accounts, but they are a known risk.” Yet what Bahadur refers to as “attackers” are not necessarily malevolent hackers in the traditional sense of the word. Individuals with basic digital literacy can, and do, create make-believe social media profiles, as do multinational companies, the police, the military and the government.
Cases in point: the U.S. military currently employs Centcom to manage the progression of an “online persona management service,” which includes creating fake social media profiles. According to Commander Bill Speaks, a spokesman for the United States Central Command, one of 9 combatant commands in the United States military, “the [online persona management service] technology supports classified blogging activities on foreign-language websites to enable Centcom to counter violent extremist and enemy propaganda outside the US.”
Just as criminals use fake social media profiles to target victims, the police creates fake Facebook profiles to bust precisely these kinds of perpetrators. And just as fake social media profiles can be used to combat violence, so, too, can they be used to create propaganda. “For every strong statement about preserving liberty, freedom of expression and privacy on the global Internet, there exists a countervailing example of the United States attempting to undermine those same values,” writesRichard Esguerra, Development Director of the Electronic Frontier Foundation.
The U.S. government, too, is using fake profiles; just recently, the technology security firm HBGary developed software that can create multiple fake social media profiles, which can then perform actions such as detect public opinions against politicians, and then use the fake profiles to manipulate public opinion. Mitt Romney, for example, was recently accused of creating a fake Bill Clinton Twitter handle and then using it to tweet Pro-Romney affirmations.
The action that can be taken by social media channels to reduce the number of fake accounts is limited. “How do you police a half billion users?” asked Bahadur. “Major sites like YouTube, Twitter and Facebook can have some programmatic capabilities to block fake accounts, but most channels do not have such capabilities.”
As an individual user, there are ways to protect yourself from being fooled by fake social media accounts. USAToday, for example, advises that Twitter users should pay attention to the blue "verified" checkmark badge, which indicates that an account has been verified by Twitter. (However, even that isn’t a guarantee: in January 2012, Twitter briefly verified a fabricated account impersonating Wendi Deng, the wife of News Corporation mogul Rupert Murdoch). If you do find a fake account (be it yours or another user’s), each social network has steps to report a profile, and you can even ask the social network to remove it.
Some cases of fake social media accounts have gone to court. In December 2012, Rick D. Senft, the president of Passavant Memorial Homes, filed a lawsuit against LinkedIn, claiming that someone created an account using his name without his permission and posted his personal contact information.Senft, who argues that he keeps his personal information private, claims that LinkedIn “must tell him who put his name, personal cell phone and personal email on the site,” reports USAToday. LinkedIn is said not to be reacting to the legal action proactively.
In other cases, the social networks themselves take legal action. In April 2012, Twitter “filed a federal law suit against five spammers, including those who create fake Twitter followers,” the Telegraph reports. The following day, “several of the websites named in Twitter's suit -- TweetAttacks, TweetBuddy, and a site operated by Lucero -- were offline,” reports CNN.
But what lies at the core of fake social media profiles is a much older issue: the appeal of anonymity. In fact, pseudonyms lie at the heart of the United States Constitution. From Alexander Hamilton to James Madison to John Jay, between 1787 and 1788, numerous writers used pseudonyms to debate the design of the constitution in the press.
With the advent of new technology, anonymity and pseudonyms are now accessible to all. A few years ago, fake profiles dominated Internet relay chats, now it is Facebook and Twitter that are inundated by such make-believe accounts. “Social media just makes it so much easier to create fake profiles, gain trust and expand to a large network very quickly,” Bahadur said. What you yourself wouldn’t say or do, the fake profile can. Not only that, but by means of multiple profiles, you can multiply your influence, be it in favor of one opinion or by creating differing views with different profiles. Chances are, Alexander Hamilton and his contemporaries wouldn’t shy away from a fake Facebook profile or Twitter account were they alive today.
As an everyday Internet user, you can enter a forum, with a fake profile or with a real one. You can then discuss issues with other users, not knowing whether they are using pseudonyms or not. But in a world of fake profiles, what is the value of such information and subsequently generated opinion? Does the Internet inform, or misinform? Aren’t there more effective ways to generate and influence public opinion?
Nowadays, it is just as easy, or even easier, to spread more lies than the truth. No matter on which side of the spectrum you stand, just beware: the backlash can be instantaneous and harsh. And since you’re not the only one hiding behind a pseudonym, you might never know who your opponent is. But doesn’t that make the virtual debate all the more appealing?