Social Network Founders. Reddit founder Steve Huffman admitted in an online computer science class that Reddit was launched with a large number of fake users. The two founders wrote a capability available only to them whereby adding a user name automatically registered that username as a real user.
For the first few months, Reddit appeared to have hundreds or thousands of users, but they were mostly just the two founders. This is probably pretty common, especially for apps that interface with social networks (as many now do).
BBC reporter Rory Cellan-Jones tested the value to businesses of Facebook advertising and “Likes.” He created a fake company called VirtualBagel, which offered a bogus service: downloadable electronic bagels.
He bought $60 worth of Facebook advertising, and got 3,000 “Likes.”
Upon closer inspection, however, he found that many of the “Likes” were made by fake accounts, and by serial “Likers” -- for example, one fake account in Egypt that had also “Liked” 3,000 other brands.
He also noticed a wildly disproportionate number of “Likes” coming from certain countries -- Egypt, Indonesia and the Philippines.
A bioscience consulting company called Comprendia discovered something similar. Some 54% of “Likes” for their a company came from India, Mexico, Indonesia, and Portugal, which collectively represent only 15% of Facebook users. They estimate that about 40% of the Facebook “Likes” they got were from fake accounts. Facebook recently announced a new initiative to automatically remove fake “Likes,” which it says come from “malware, compromised accounts, deceived users, or purchased bulk likes.”
But this program appears to me to be more of a PR stunt than an effective elimination of fake “Likes.” For starters, Facebook estimates that “on average, less than 1% of Likes on any given Page will be removed.” However, the actual percentage of fake “Likes” is surely much higher, possibly as high as 40%, as Comprendia estimates.
I believe the fake social user account problem is going to become a far bigger challenge than most people believe.
It’s an arms race, comparable to the contest between email spammers and spam filter companies. As companies find new ways to detect and close fake accounts, the fakers will find new ways to open undetectable ones.
Fake accounts will increasingly sway public opinion, spam social streams with sophisticated and hard-to-detect soft pitches for products and services, socially engineer people for criminal purposes and much more.
The fake social user account problem will be devastating for Facebook and Twitter, which will have to work hard to convince advertisers that users and “Likes” and tweets are living, breathing human beings, and not bots or scammers.