Fraudulent users and "likes" are an acute problem for a company
that has sought to distinguish itself as a place on the Web where
people use their real identities.
The Facebook page for Gaston Memorial Hospital, in Gastonia, North Carolina, features a chicken salad recipe to encourage wholesome eating, tips on avoiding injuries at Zumba dance classes and pictures of staff members dressed up for Halloween.
Typical stuff for a hospital in a small U.S. town.
But in October, another Facebook page for the hospital popped up. This one posted criticisms of President Barack Obama and the Affordable Care Act, the U.S. health care overhaul known to many as Obamacare. That alternate page swiftly gathered hundreds of followers, and the anti-Obama screeds drew "likes."
Officials at the hospital, scrambling to get the page taken down, turned to their real Facebook page for damage control. "We apologize for any confusion," they posted on Oct. 8, "and appreciate the support of our followers."
The fake page was taken down 11 days later, as mysteriously as it had gone up. Hospital officials say that they have no idea who was behind it.
Fakery is all over the Internet. Twitter, which allows pseudonyms, is rife with fake accounts and followers, and has been used to spread false rumors, as demonstrated recently during Hurricane Sandy. False customer reviews are a real problem on consumer Web sites.
Gaston Memorial's experience is a lesson in the problem of fakery on Facebook. For Facebook, the world's largest social network, such an event represents an especially acute problem, because it calls into question the company's basic premise.
As the company says, "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."
"Likes" from fraudulent accounts damage the trust of advertisers, who want clicks from real people -- potential customers on whom Facebook relies to make money. Fakery can also ruin the credibility of search results for the social search engine that Facebook says it is building.
The company says it has always taken the problem of misrepresentation seriously, and it 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.
The fakery problem on Facebook comes in many shapes. False profiles are fairly easy to create; hundreds can pop up simultaneously, sometimes with the help of automation, and they often persuade real people to accept friend requests that can spread malware to disrupt computer functions or gather sensitive information.
Fake Facebook friends and likes are sold on the Web like trinkets at a bazaar, directed at those who want to enhance their online images. Fake coupons for meals and gadgets can appear on Facebook newsfeeds, seeking to trick people into disclosing personal information.
Somewhat more benignly, some college students use fake names in an effort to protect their Facebook content from the eyes of future employers.
Mr. Sullivan declined to say what portion of the company's more than one billion accounts might be fake. The company quantified the
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