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 problem last June, in response to an inquiry by the U.S. Securities and Exchange Commission. At that time, the company said that 8.7 percent, or 83 million, of its 855 million active accounts were duplicates or false or "undesirable" for activities like the spreading of spam.
Mr. Sullivan said that since August, the company had established a new automated system to purge fake "likes." The company said it had 150 to 300 staff members to weed out fraud.
Flags are raised if an account sends out hundreds of friend requests at a time, Mr. Sullivan explained, or likes hundreds of pages simultaneously or, most obvious of all, posts a link to a site that is known to contain a virus. Those suspected of fraud are warned. Depending on what they do on the site, accounts can be suspended.
In October, Facebook announced new partnerships with anti-virus companies. People on Facebook can now download free or paid anti- virus coverage to guard against malware.
"It's something we have been pretty effective at all along," Mr. Sullivan said.
Facebook's new aggressiveness toward fake "likes" became noticeable in September, when brand pages started seeing their fan numbers dip noticeably. Brand pages were expected to lose, on average, less than 1 percent of fans, Facebook said at the time. 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 criticisms of the Obama administration.
Dallas P. Wilborn, the hospital's public relations manager, said her office had tried to leave a voice mail message for Facebook but had been disconnected; an e-mail response from the social network said that the fake page did not violate its terms of service. The hospital submitted more evidence, saying that the impostor was using the company's logo.
Eleven days later, the hospital said, Facebook found in its favor. But by then, the local newspaper, The Gaston Gazette, had written about the matter and the fake page had disappeared.
Facebook declined to comment on the matter and pointed to its Statement of Rights and Responsibilities.
The recent U.S. election season provided many accusations of fakery.
In Washington State, two groups fighting over a referendum on gay marriage locked horns over "likes" on Facebook. A group supporting gay marriage pointed to the Facebook page of its rival, Preserve Marriage Washington, which collected thousands of "likes" in a few short spurts. During those peaks, the pro-gay marriage group said, the preponderance of the "likes" came from far-flung cities like Bangkok and Vilnius, Lithuania, whose residents would seem to have little reason to care about a state referendum in Washington. The "likes" then fell as suddenly as they had risen.
Accusations were leveled on the Web site of the gay marriage support group, Washington United for Marriage. Preserve Marriage Washington denied any wrongdoing. Facebook declined to comment.
The research firm Gartner estimates that fewer than 4 percent of all social media interactions are false today but that the figure could exceed 10 percent by 2014.
Fake accounts and their fake posts will have to be culled aggressively if Facebook wants to expand its search function, said Shuman Ghosemajumder, a former Google engineer whose start-up, Shape Security, focuses on automated fakery on the Internet. If you are doing research on laptop computers, for instance, Facebook will have to ensure that you can trust the search results that come up.
"If the whole idea behind social search is to look behind what different Facebook users are doing, then you have to make sure you don't have fake accounts to influence that," he said.
The ubiquity of Facebook, some people say, compels them to be a little bit fake. Colleen Callahan, who is 25, is among them. She was a senior in college when she started getting slightly nervous about the pictures that a prospective employer might find on Facebook. Like the pages of most of her college friends, she said, hers had a preponderance of pictures from parties.
"It would be O.K. if people saw it, but I didn't want people to interpret it differently," she said. So Ms. Callahan tweaked her profile. She became Colleen Skisalot. ("I am a big skier," she explained.)
The name stuck. She still has not changed it back, 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.
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