On February 4th, 2004, former Harvard students, Eduardo Saverin, Andrew McCollum, Dustin Moskovitz, Chris Hughes and Mark Zuckerberg, launched the Facebook social networking site and made it available for access to Harvard students. Within the first months, more than half of all Harvard students were registered on the website and actively using its services. In March, they expanded access to students from Columbia, Stanford and Yale and by 2006, it was available and in demand by the public at large. It is unlikely that even Mark Zuckerberg, Facebook’s creator and CEO, could have predicted just how big of a game changer Facebook would become.
Now, 13 years later, Facebook is the most used website on the planet, has a $500
billion market value and reports over 2 billion active users per month. It is estimated that the average US consumer spends approximately 40 minutes on Facebook per day. The social media platform has ingrained itself into our national consciousness and conversations; it has encouraged the dissemination of ideas, content, and life events and completely changed the way humans can interact with each other.
While Facebook is capable of being used as a tool for good and positive change, naturally, there are those who would use the power and platform of the social media giant for dubious ends. Recently, there have been a rash of “users” popping up that are not actually used by real people. These bots and fake profiles have created a myriad of issues with their ability to disseminate false information or trick people into doing or believing things for monetary gain. In November, Facebook’s general counsel spoke with members of Congress who were seeking ways to eliminate fake profiles and news stories. They estimated that as many as 2% to 6% of all Facebook’s accounts were false accounts or spam—which would put the estimated number of fake Facebook profiles between 40 million or 200 million.
Colin Stretch, Facebook’s general counsel stated, “We understand that the people you represent expect authentic experiences when they come to our platform,” He told members of the Senate committee that the company was doubling its review staff to 20,000 as well as utilizing artificial intelligence to find more bogus accounts. Although Facebook is making a concerted effort to crack down on those who would use Facebook for nefarious purposes, it is important for you to know what these fake accounts are, how to spot them and what to do when you encounter a fake profile. Once you start looking, you will be surprised by how many false faces you regularly encounter.
What Are Fake Profiles?
While they may pretend to be a friend or a possible love interest, do not be fooled. The intent behind their actions could be as harmless as manipulating your ideas, or they could be much more sinister, with aims of stealing your money, valuables or identify. There are generally two forms of fake Facebook accounts: Sock Puppets and Bot accounts.
Sock Puppets: Sock puppet profiles are almost always operated by a human who is pretending to be someone else. According to Wikipedia, a sock puppet is, “An online identity used for purposes of deception. The term, a reference to the manipulation of a simple hand puppet made from a sock, originally referred to a false identity assumed by a member of an Internet community who spoke to, or about, themselves while pretending to be another person.” Now, these types of profiles should not be confused with pseudonyms. Their goal is not to have or maintain anonymity, but to intentionally push information that either defends, praises or supports a person, organization, or ideology in order to alter and influence public perception or opinion.
Bots – A bot, is short for a robot, an automated social media account that operates without human interaction, like a plane flying on autopilot. Since these accounts are limited in their capability and artificial intelligence, often times one socket puppet will utilize multiple bots, to share, repost, comment or like a story or post in order to boost its visibility, get it trending, or make it go viral.
How to Spot a Fake Profile
In general, bots are far easier to identify due to their limited technical capabilities, since they do not act like humans. Sock puppets may be more difficult to distinguish, but often the signs are there if you know where to look and what to look for. Below are some indicators that the purported human who recently commented on your page, messaged you or sent you a friend request, is not who they say they are. Most of the times these profiles are not made to hold up to a close inspection, because their intent is often to trick you at the surface level, to appear human. The more of these signs you see, the less likely that they are to be genuine.
Check their profile picture – One of the easiest ways to determine that a Facebook account is false is by examining the profile picture. More often than not, the photo is downloaded from somewhere else and being repurposed to make them seem like a gorgeous model or a normal person. How can you tell? Easy, open up Google Image Search, then download the profile photo. Drag and drop the photo into the Google Image Search bar and hit search. If the photo is indeed fake, you will see that this picture has been used elsewhere or is of someone else entirely.
Number of photos – Consider your own or your friends’ Facebook Profiles. They are timelines of memories and experiences over years and years. They will have photos of trips, events, family members. They will be tagged in other user’s photos as well. A bot generally has the minimum amount of pictures and it would take a ton of work and effort for sock puppet accounts to create a variety of photos meant to simulate someone actually living out a life full of experiences.
Are they a supermodel? – This point is more for the fellas that are reading this. Beautiful women draw men like flies to honey. They generally do not go out of their way to pursue someone because anyone they were even remotely interested in, often times, would already approach or pursue them. While not all beautiful women on Facebook are bots, and although not every bot is an attractive woman, the vast majority of fake accounts are the profiles of an attractive looking woman. Why? Because guys like pictures of beautiful women and guys are more likely to click on their picture or accept their request. If a Victoria Secret looking stranger hits you up out of the blue wanting to be your friend or chat, odds are they are not a real person. This is not to say it can’t happen, just to reinforce that this is the main form of fake Facebook profiles; utilizing sexuality to con.
Old Layouts – Facebook updates its timeline layout quite often, making tweaks, adjustments and aesthetic improvements yearly. Many bots still use the older versions of Facebook, especially the version before Timeline.
Friend Count – Unless you are a celebrity or have some reason to have a following, the average user has roughly 388 friends on Facebook. Obviously, there are some people who are social and have way more friends, especially younger people, while others are more discretionary with who they want to be friends, regulating their contacts to only close friends. Odds are, if a profile has thousands of followers or only a handful, then they are unlikely to be a real user.
Mutual Friends – Receiving a friend request from a stranger is a red flag in itself. This flag grows larger and flaps more wildly if you share no friends in common or only have a few. Generally, your social groups will all be friends with each other. Sometimes people do send requests to mutual friends whom they do not know personally, but rarely does that happen without a reason.
Odd backgrounds – When you click on a person’s Facebook link, you can look at a short biography on the left-hand side of the page. A user biography is a general breakdown of their life: where they are from, their birthdate, schooling, work, etc. If this information is blank, or does not add up in a consistent manner, likely it is a fake.
Unresponsive – If you suspect an account is fake, send the user a private message. Bots are not programmed to respond to private messages. If they do respond with broken English, but their bio says they studied English Lit at Cambridge… good chance it’s a fake.
Recent Activity – As mentioned above, Facebook users use Facebook daily and for a variety of things. They might post a status update, share a story, a song, or a video. They interact with people on their page and write on other people’s posted content. If a timeline is absent of activity, or only posts one type of thing, or only pushes clearly biased political messages, you likely have a found a bot or sock puppet.
What should you do if and when you encounter a Facebook bot or sock puppet account? The key task is to recognize what it is and what its purpose is: to deceive you or disseminate misinformation. The best thing you can do is to ignore it and go on with your life or report it. The report button/block can be found directly beneath the false accounts fake friend list. Whatever you do, do not EVER give up your personal info, especially if it is a Nigerian prince claiming he just needs your social security number in order to help his dying grandmother. Know these signs, don’t be ignorant and you will be just fine.