USA Today Asks FBI to Investigate Rise in Fake Facebook Followers

The parent company of USA TODAY said it had asked the FBI to investigate a wave of fake Facebook accounts so large it accounted for half of the newspaper’s following on the social media platform.

Facebook purged millions of those fake accounts from USA TODAY and other publishers three weeks ago, the latest salvo in the social giant’s battle against scammers and spammers seeking access to its platform and its 1.94 billion users.

Those axed accounts included more than a third of USA TODAY’s approximately 15.2 million Facebook “likes” at the time. Executives of Gannett Co., parent of USA TODAY and 109 local news properties, said Thursday millions of its remaining followers also were fake, and it continued to accumulate a thousand phony followers a day.

Facebook on Friday said it’s detected additional suspicious activity since its April fake-account crackdown, some of which look similar to the campaign it disrupted in April. Others more closely resemble common fake profiles that post spam comments and attempt to look legitimate by engaging with businesses’ Facebook pages.

“After we identified the additional set of violating accounts, we notified our partners at USA Today, and are taking action against these accounts,” said  Shabnam Shaik, technical program manager on Facebook’s protect and care team, in a statement. She declined to reveal how many fake accounts Facebook had discovered.

Facebook has said in filings with the Securities and Exchange commission that it estimates about 1% of its monthly worldwide active users are “misclassified” accounts, which it says includes both fake accounts and those that don’t abide by its terms of service, such as people creating accounts for their pets. The company believes the majority of these are outside of the United States. The company declined to say what the ratio between these types of misclassified accounts was.

The continued presence of phony accounts hasn’t checked the social network’s user growth, but they can cause confusion and havoc for individual users and companies. Fake profiles that masquerade as real people have also caused tragedy, such as the torture and killing of a university student in Pakistan after someone set up a fake Facebook account in his name that allegedly contained blasphemous content.

In USA TODAY’s case, it’s not clear why spam operators have targeted the media company’s Facebook pages in droves.

“We don’t know why the scope of impact on USA Today’s Facebook Page appears greater than any other publisher,” said Shaik.

Facebook suggested three weeks ago that a “major spam operation” had set up the accounts as a way to access and potentially spam and scam its users. These fake accounts follow and comment on publishers’ pages to lend a veneer of credibility that might help the account operators connect with real users while veiling them from Facebook’s automatic fake account detectors.

USA TODAY appears to have been the main target of this operation. Gannett contacted the FBI late Wednesday because the barrage was “not stopping,” and the company is no closer to identifying its source, said Maribel Wadsworth, the publisher’s chief transformation officer. The FBI declined to comment.

While creating fake accounts violates Facebook’s terms of service, it probably isn’t a crime. But a proliferation of such accounts risks damaging a publisher’s brand at a time when the social network is one of the key ways news organizations reach their readers.

When Facebook purged the fake accounts in April, it cut 200 million fake likes from the pages of major publishers, including 20,000 from the U.K.’s Guardian. Some 12 million were from USA TODAY and affiliates, the single largest group, Wadsworth said. The discovery comes after Gannett had touted the extent of its reach on the social platform, including in a Feb. 22 report to its shareholders. Gannett said it has not seen a drop in Facebook referrals to its own properties since Facebook said it was tackling the spam operation.

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SOURCE: Elizabeth Weise and Brad Heath