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Social media has a massive fake account problem

In Q4 2022 Facebook took action on 1.3 billion fake accounts and estimates that they represented approximately 4-5% of their worldwide monthly active users. Facebook’s detection technology blocks millions of attempts to create fake accounts every day.

On TikTok the situation is similarly problematic. From July to September 2022 TikTok removed 50.96 million fake accounts, and Elon Musk, prior to taking over at Twitter, publicly criticized the high number of fake/spam accounts on the platform.

Elon Musk tweet, criticizing the number of fake/spam accounts on Twitter.

So what are fake accounts trying to achieve? While there are multiple reasons such as attempting to sway public opinion or for impersonation purposes, a large chunk of fake accounts operate for commercial gain.

There is an insatiable need for people and businesses to have larger followings and credibility in the crowded chaos of social media. This is where click farms come in; businesses that sell likes and follows. Many of these businesses operate in developing countries where they pay low-wage workers to sit in front of a multitude of screens, using fake accounts to click and like on a buyer’s Facebook page, TikTok account or YouTube channel.

For the uninitiated, a person can go onto a Facebook page and automatically have a higher perception of it because the page has hundreds of thousands and even millions of likes. However for those who are a bit more discerning, purchased likes and follows can be quite obvious. Let’s say a Facebook page has several million followers, but their regular posts only get a few comments here and there, and maybe a few likes. Engagement that low is a sign that the page may not have grown organically. This is the same for YouTube, Instagram and other social media. Purchasing likes or views doesn’t mean the fake accounts will actually engage with your content.

This is why some people are wary of Facebook advertising. The problem with click farm fake accounts is that in order to avoid termination, they need to appear real. Facebook is spending billions of dollars on fake account detection, and so the users who’ve created fake accounts need to behave like real people. How do they do this? Well, by posting a photo or status every now and then. Liking some pages will help too. And this is where the problem lies. Someone may legitimately run an ad on Facebook, and end up getting 100 likes for their page. These likes, however, may be from people running fake accounts that are trying to mimic normal behaviour. So the end result, even though you did things the right way, is a bunch of useless, inactive accounts that have liked and followed your page.

Social media

On Instagram there is a huge bot problem. Fake accounts are widespread on Instagram as well. Try an experiment. Post a photo with the #travel or #instagood hashtag and you’ll likely get the usual 🔥🔥🔥 or 💖💖💖 responses. Some users have even posted a blank photo and wrote in the caption that it was a test to see how many bots would respond. Unsurprisingly various comments were received along the lines of “Inspirational! One of the best pics I’ve seen. Keep it up!”

It turns out that many accounts simply run software to increase their engagement. The understanding is that you’ll get more followers the more you engage with other users. The problem is that it’s hard to spend hours a day liking other people’s photos and commenting on them. This is where the bot software comes in. The bots can like and comment on thousands of posts every hour; something that would be difficult to do manually.

Sometimes these bot accounts are easy to notice. Maybe you’ve seen someone with maybe 10 or 20 photos on their IG grid, but that person has thousands of followers. Chances are they’re running a bot that’s liking photos and following other users. As many users tend to reciprocate a follow, this account will have put minimum effort into their photos but would have accumulated some followers solely on the basis of their bot liking and following other accounts. Some people have even managed to eat out for free using bot automation on Instagram.

But deleting fake accounts only solves part of the problem. There’s also the issue of fake behaviour, and this affects social media in a big way. From April to June 2022, TikTok prevented 14.65 billion fake likes, 9.9 billion fake follow requests and removed 1.44 fake followers.

Perhaps you have seen some products being advertised on Facebook and all the user reviews are glowing endorsements of the product. It could be a simple item like a yoga mat or travel pillow. Click on the ad. The product probably doesn’t look like anything special, something you can find anywhere else. Now look at the comments. Lots of people raving about it! What’s going on? It’s just a pillow… But social proof is a strong influencer. Perhaps you get the urge to buy it just because there are so many positive reviews.

Online shopping

Realistically, any product will have a range of reviews. Not just positive. Secondly, unless the pillow or yoga mat is the next best thing since sliced bread, I doesn’t quite make sense that people would give such amazing reviews. It turns out in this day and age, there’s a market for anything and everything – including fake reviews. And this is a common tactic among dropshippers, promote cheap, low-quality products at a high price, using the social proof of 5-star reviews to get the sale. To put things into perspective, it’s estimated that out of 250 million reviews on Amazon, 61% are fake.

While fake accounts can be deleted, one of the purposes of their creation, namely to game the algorithm, is difficult to stamp out. For influencers trying to grow a larger following on IG, it’s important to get featured on the Explore page, just like it’s important for a Facebook page to be featured on a user’s wall, a video to be recommended on YouTube’s homepage or a dance to be featured on TikTok’s For You Page.

Some influencers have resorted to creating WhatsApp groups of people who all want to get more visibility, say for example on Instagram. These have been referred to as Instagram Pods. When someone posts a new photo on IG, they’ll go to their pod and notify everyone. Everyone in the pod will be expected to like and comment on the photo. This engagement, if you can call it that, will inflate the photo’s ranking in IG’s algorithm and will give it more visibility – maybe even putting it on the Explore page. Everyone is expected to return the favour in the pod, giving everyone the chance to get more visibility.

Influencer taking a selfie

This is similar to Tweetdecking on Twitter. Twitter users with large followings form groups or ‘decks’, so the deck has access to hundreds of thousands of users. Then people actually pay the Tweetdeck owner to have their tweet liked and retweeted. This results in ‘artificial virality’, but has the same result as regular virality. The tweet gets seen by a massive amount of people and Tweetdeck owners are said to be earning thousands of dollars per month from this practice.

Given the number of fake accounts that social media platforms are deleting every quarter, the problem of fake accounts doesn’t seem to be going anywhere soon. These platforms are investing billions of dollars into their detection and deletion technologies, and so their capabilities are likely to get better given the nuanced nature of a ‘fake’ account. But realistically speaking, if a fake account does get past detection technologies, they are generally quite easy to notice. Huge numbers of followers will little to no engagement? Hmmm 🧐

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