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Facebook still hasn’t fixed this loophole for fake accounts

Rob Pegoraro
Contributing Editor
Facebook has been vocal about tamping down on fake news and ‘inauthentic’ user behavior, but there’s still a glaring loophole in its attempts. (Photo by Christophe Morin/IP3/Getty Images)

After years of pledges by Facebook (FB) to quash “inauthentic” behavior on the social network, Facebook Pages still don’t come close to being an open book.

The ownership of these Pages — which anyone can set up on Facebook to highlight businesses, communities or public figures — continues to be a mystery. Page owners have no obligation to identify who they are, Facebook verification of them often means little and the social network doesn’t reveal enough of its own data about them to help people make an informed judgment.

What often results is a flood of clickbait of dubious veracity from the sketchiest of sources.

Pages without places or faces

Consider three Pages that surfaced when I inspected one family member’s News Feed during the Thanksgiving weekend. Each one shared anti-Trump or pro-Democratic Party news and memes followed by constant requests to Like and Share. There was Proud Liberals with 2.7 million likes, I Love Democrats with 689,000 likes and Proud Democrat, which had 1.2 million likes.

Who’s behind them? Most busy Facebook users will probably never know.

All three Pages’ about-us screens provided zero information about their ownership, authorship or location. Only the Proud Liberals offered any off-site contact info, which was in the form of a link to a website that didn’t list an email or street address.

The Proud Liberals and I Love Democrats also bore a suspicious resemblance. Their recently shared links only went to stories at two third-party sites that featured the same design and the same heavy ratio of ads to rewrites of legitimate news sites’ stories.

Facebook Pages can mention the profiles of people running them, but none of the three did.

They also lacked the blue checkmark indicating that Facebook verified a Page owner’s identity through official ID documents. But many legitimate Pages don’t have this stamp of approval including  the Virginia-politics blog Blue Virginia, the Online News Association of digital journalists and the Washington microbrewery DC Brau. And unfortunately, the process for becoming verified is less than obvious.

Conversely, Facebook verified my own Page in 2014 without any action on my part.

Facebook could help more

This level of inscrutability doesn’t quite square with Facebook’s statements. Its real-names policy for users may not apply to Pages, but it’s repeatedly cited the risks of phony activity by Pages.

A Nov. 13 post by cybersecurity-policy head Nathaniel Gleicher warned of “people or organizations working together to create networks of accounts and Pages to mislead others about who they are.”

Tuesday, Facebook policy-solutions vice president Richard Allan made a similar point at a parliamentary hearing in London saying, “Nobody should be on there anonymously, whether for political purposes or otherwise.”

But Facebook’s move this summer to provide more insight into Pages in the form of an “Info and Ads” section listing their creation date, previous names, ads they’ve run and the countries from which they’re managed is both easy to miss and incomplete.

On the desktop, it’s at the bottom of the left-hand column of links; the “About” link higher up surfaces none of this data. In its Android and iPhone apps, it’s behind an “i” button at the lower right corner of a Page’s cover photo. Facebook’s iPad app, my relative’s primary access to the network, doesn’t show that button, thanks to a bug Facebook says it will fix.

This Page-info section also omits the details about publications, including excerpts from their Wikipedia entries, that Facebook provides for links to articles shared by friends.

As for those three mystery Pages, this extra info revealed that Proud Liberals and I Love Democrats were created in December 2015 and July 2016 and managed from Canada and the United States. Proud Democrat, meanwhile, dated to February 2016 and was run out of Israel, Nigeria and the Philippines.

A message sent to that Page Tuesday asking what might make American politics so interesting in Tel Aviv, Lagos or Manila remained unanswered Wednesday.

Messages sent to Proud Liberals and I Love Democrats Tuesday won’t get an answer, either. After an inquiry from Yahoo Finance, Facebook removed both Pages for violating its ban on driving traffic to ad-dominated sites elsewhere.

Facebook’s Page-info details for all three did not list any recent ads, but Facebook’s rules requiring purchasers of political ads to confirm their identity have allowed said purchasers to use the pseudonym of their choice above these ads.

What everybody can do

Facebook spokeswoman Beth Gautier said in an email that the company would not require Page owners to identify themselves.

“Doing so could raise many questions about personal safety and exposure, like domestic violence or persecution of those in vulnerable or marginalized communities,” she wrote. “That said, we are exploring ways to give people more information about the Pages they visit.”

At a minimum, Facebook should make its own Page info as easy to spot as a Page’s self-written, about-us section. And it should list other Pages managed by the same people.

An outside critic of Facebook’s transparency suggested that Facebook extend its existing ad-transparency measures to Page posts first shared as ads. When later reshared by friends, they offer no hint they were first sponsored.

“We think that Pages and their posts, which are public, should be just as accessible as ads,” Miranda Bogen, senior policy analyst at the Washington-based non-profit Upturn told Yahoo Finance. As a report posted by that group in May observed, “it can be infeasible for users to determine when a post was initially propelled by money before going viral.”

Meanwhile, you can rely on a harsher but simpler metric for keeping a Page in your News Feed: If it looks at all sketchy and you know nothing about its background besides the fact that it exists on Facebook, unlike it. You’ll have more time there for your friends and family—still the best reason to use Facebook, and perhaps the only good one left.

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Email Rob at rob@robpegoraro.com; follow him on Twitter at @robpegoraro