538 Million: How did Facebook’s Fake Account Problem become so big?

Updated with response from Facebook: Something about Facebook’s transparency report doesn’t add up to the numbers it has previously filed with the Securities and Exchange Commission. As part of its new transparency report, Facebook today announced that it shut down 538 million fake accounts. And the question is how did this become such a big problem?

Fake accounts3Last time I checked (and reported) — at the end of 2017, Facebook had filed with the SEC that it had between 64-to-85 million false accounts. That’s about 3-to-4 percent of their monthly active users. In 2016, they had roughly 18.6 million false accounts. In its 10K filings, Facebook says:

Facebook  divides”false” accounts into two categories: (1) user-misclassified accounts, where users have created personal profiles for a business, organization, or non-human entity such as a pet (such entities are permitted on Facebook using a Page rather than a personal profile under our terms of service); and (2) undesirable accounts, which represent user profiles that we determine are intended to be used for purposes that violate our terms of service, such as spamming.

So how many of these 538 million fake accounts belong in the “undesirable” accounts category? We need more transparency here. 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?

A little clarity would be in order. More importantly, why did the number of fake accounts balloon in 2018? The closest explanation we have is in their most recent 10Q:

Our estimation of false accounts can vary as a result of episodic spikes in the creation of such accounts…From time to time, we may make product changes or take other actions to reduce the number of duplicate or false accounts among our users, which may also reduce our DAU and MAU estimates in a particular period. Our data limitations may affect our understanding of certain details of our business.

So quietly Facebook is saying — in a legal roundabout way — don’t believe everything we say.

Perhaps it is why it is legitimate for media to question the veracity of their data. Did they knowingly under-report the fake account problem? And if they did, did they misrepresent the data they filed with the SEC? If you read through their SEC filings, they use enough legalese to wiggle out of any situation. But that doesn’t take away from the fact, that they have been Houdini like with their data.

I am very much inclined to believe that they knowingly obfuscated the account numbers as “user growth” is a metric that is rewarded handsomely by growth-obsessed Wall Street. This is a company with a history of misrepresenting their data.

For instance, they overestimated important video metric — average time users spent watching video on its platform — by between 60 percent to 70 percent for two years. They duped advertisers and creators in the process. This is a company so addicted to growth-at-any-cost that it doesn’t take much for me to think the worst of them.

Updated with Facebook’s response:

In response to my questions, a Facebook spokesperson sent this response.

We prevent millions of fake account attempts daily from ever registering with Facebook. For the ones that did register, we disabled most of them within minutes of registration. That’s the “in Q1, we disabled about 583 million fake accounts” number.  We estimate (despite those efforts) that around three to four percent of the active Facebook accounts on the site during this time period were still fake.

In other words, 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.

It all makes sense, now!

A letter from Om

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