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Why fake Facebook accounts can be real scary

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Yesterday, with the release of the Community Standards Enforcement Report, Facebook gave us two numbe
 
May 16 · Issue #138 · View online
The Interface
Yesterday, with the release of the Community Standards Enforcement Report, Facebook gave us two numbers related to fake accounts. One was very big — making the problem look very big — and one was very small, making the problem appear trivial. So which is it? 
The big number was 1.3 billion. That’s how many fake accounts Facebook deleted in the first six months of the year
The small number was 3-4 percent. That’s Facebook’s fake accounts as a percentage of the company’s monthly active users.
Are they saying they see over 6.5 million accounts created and detected every day in addition to the ones they shut down? Is this the normal rate, or has it gone up or down? Did they exist and were undiscovered? If they were not, how did they slip through the cracks?
Or are we to assume, that suddenly, in past four months, that number has grown by as much as 450 million fake accounts? Or does that mean that they suddenly discovered and disabled 538 million fake accounts, in addition to the 3-to-4% of monthly active users? Were they looking hard enough? Was Facebook underinvested in finding bad actors? Were they underinvested in fixing the problem?
Facebook did a nice job clarifying the discrepancy, in a statement later added to Om’s post:
We estimated that fake accounts represented approximately 3% to 4% of monthly active users (MAU) on Facebook. Because we often catch and disable these fake accounts (the 538 million number) within minutes of registration, they never even get counted in our monthly active user number.
In Q1 2018, we disabled 583 million fake accounts, down from 694 million in Q4 2017. Our metrics can vary widely for fake accounts acted on, driven by new cyber attacks and the variability of our detection technology’s ability to find and flag them. The decrease in fake accounts disabled between Q4 and Q1 is largely due to this variation.
So is it a big problem or a small problem? The answer is both. As a percentage of total users, the number of fake accounts is small. And yet because Facebook itself is so large, even a small percentage of fake users can do an outsized amount of harm. 
What’s more, Charlie Warzel reported today that it remains trivial to buy thousands of fake Facebook accounts:
Within 30 minutes I was behind the wheel of Audrey’s page, liking pictures, posting status updates, and warding off creepy messages. There was little to suggest that the page was inauthentic — or that its operator was a 30-year-old journalist in Montana.
Across Facebook there are countless others just like Audrey — dummy accounts with partially written backstories, a small posting history, and a photo gallery of real people taking real selfies. They trade hands in a vast web of fake-account marketplaces, where, for a small sum, any interested marketer, scammer, or troll can amass a legion of seemingly human profiles capable of outwitting Facebook’s detection. And though Facebook CEO Mark Zuckerberg told Congress this April that “you’re not allowed to have a fake account on Facebook,” the marketplaces continue to thrive in plain sight online.
As Charlie notes, this phenomenon isn’t unique to Facebook: “Plenty of Twitter, Instagram, and email accounts are also available for purchase.” He also notes that Facebook is getting better at detecting fake accounts automatically, to the frustration of the people running the marketplaces.
For the most part, fake accounts are used by spammers: few people are willing to hawk boner pills under their real name. But as we learned from the Internet Research Agency in 2016, state actors take advantage of fake accounts as well. And as we approach the midterms, Renee DiResta’s words will loom in my mind:
Facebook has become more sophisticated at detection because the majority of people who buy fake accounts, traditionally, have been spammers who behave a certain way. But if it’s a state actor buying accounts, they’d have more sophistication and could potentially evade the checks that catch the spammer profile.”

Democracy
Zuckerberg Agrees to EU Parliament Grilling Over Data Scandal
New Privacy Rules Could Make This Woman One of Tech’s Most Important Regulators
This Is Ajit Pai, Nemesis of Net Neutrality
Listen to ‘The Daily’: When Facebook Rumors Incite Real Violence
San Francisco Nurses Protest the Zuckerberg Hospital’s Name
Elsewhere
Construction Tops $1B at Facebook's West Campus
Facebook lets advertisers target users based on sensitive interests
Twitter is going to make third-party apps worse starting in August
The Pigeon Meme, from the Anime Brave of the Sun FighBird
Launches
Facebook adds Voice Posts, Stories archive, and new cloud storage features
Takes
Europe’s Data Protection Law Is a Big, Confusing Mess
Goodbye Facebook, Hello Robinhood
And finally ...
The Verge’s new game show, Converge with Casey Newton, launches May 23rd
Talk to me
Questions? Comments? Podcast guests? casey@theverge.com
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