Despite recent enforcement actions, Facebook is still plagued by fake accounts, including thousands helping promote a far-right German political party.
Facebook announced this week it removed 2.19 billion fake accounts between January and March, its biggest-ever takedown of fakes in a single quarter. Company CEO Mark Zuckerberg confidently told media that “we’re taking down more fake accounts than ever.”
What he didn’t say is that there are also more active fake accounts on Facebook than there were six months ago — more than ever before. Facebook now says 5% of active accounts are fake, up from its previous estimate of 3% to 4%.
The sweep of more than 2 billion fake accounts, while impressive, mostly removed profiles at the point of creation. As Zuckerberg said, “they were never considered active in our systems and we don’t count them in any of our overall community metrics.”
So based on Facebook’s own key metric for measuring fake accounts, the problem is actually getting worse. People who investigate fake accounts on the platform also told BuzzFeed News that the company still fails to remove obvious fakes — even during critical periods, such as the ongoing European Parliament election.
Two days before Facebook released its latest Community Standards Enforcement Report with the number of removed accounts, German broadcaster ZDF published a report about a network of thousands of suspicious Facebook accounts liking pages and content from AfD, the German far-right party. This followed a recent article from German newsweekly Der Spiegel that reported AfD content represents 85% of all German party–affiliated political content being shared on Facebook.
In both cases, the data came from George Washington University research professor Trevor Davis. He spent three months researching AfD’s presence on Facebook and investigating hundreds of thousands of Facebook accounts that have liked AfD pages or posts.
“What I can prove is that in the course of three months I identified 200,000 accounts that have two or more features of artificiality,” he told BuzzFeed News.
He said his findings, and the fact that Facebook has still not taken action after ZDF’s story ran, shows the company is failing at removing active fake accounts.
“Of the nearly 200,000 likely fraudulent accounts we identified, Facebook suspended a grand total of 500 during our study period,” he said in a message. “They failed to suspend accounts using stolen images of famous actors and even the late president of Kosovo as their profile photo. They failed to suspend accounts located in Muslim countries that ‘like’ hundreds of Islamophobic posts a day. This occurred during an election. I find this an odd time for Facebook to publicly pat themselves on the back.”
A Facebook spokesperson told BuzzFeed News it needs to receive more detail from Davis in order to investigate his findings.
“Mr. Davis has not shared his research with us in order for us to substantiate his claims. We would be happy to investigate, as we do frequently when we receive tips from researchers,” they said in an email.
“Though this research has been shared with them via two different German publishers in the past month (Spiegel, ZDF), Facebook has chosen not to reach out to me directly,” he said.
Davis provided BuzzFeed News with a draft white paper and related presentation that summarize his data and findings. He said they show the AfD benefits from a massive network of inauthentic accounts and activity.
Many of the accounts he found have stolen profiles photos, and only like AfD pages or content. Thousands of profiles have two-letter last names. Similarly, thousands of accounts found liking AfD pages or posts said on their profiles that they live in predominately Muslim countries and had Muslim names. The AfD frequently spreads anti-Muslim content, and it released a policy paper that said “Islam is not part of Germany.”
Davis said the evidence of inauthenticity among the profiles he examined is overwhelming, yet Facebook failed to act.
“I think it’s important that not just Facebook be aware of what has occurred, but the public as well. The question we should all ask is, what does this failure to find these accounts themselves demonstrate about their ability to police manipulation on their network?”
When ZDF brought Facebook a sample of 20 accounts for investigation, the company immediately took down two of them and challenged the owners of six others to provide ID verification to Facebook. It declared the remaining 12 to be real. But among those 12 supposedly real accounts was a fake account that ZDF itself had created weeks earlier.
“Our account, the only one we knew was one hundred percent fake, Facebook considered genuine,” wrote Stephan Mündges und Ulrich Stoll of ZDF.
AfD did not respond to an emailed request for comment. But Jörg Meuthen, a party spokesperson, told ZDF the AfD has not paid for accounts or other social media promotion. He also said there’s nothing suspicious about people based outside of Germany interacting with AfD content, even at high frequency.
“The fact that individual district association sides have supporters who sometimes live several hundred kilometers away from these district associations is completely normal in our party. Our party members and sympathizers are very close to each other on the Internet.”
Davis isn’t the only person hunting for fakes on Facebook who says the company is falling down on the job. Sarah Thompson has been documenting overseas spammers and fake accounts since at least 2016. She said she stopped reporting fake accounts to the company due to inaction on its part.
“I feel that Facebook may be able to report fantastic numbers of their [artificial intelligence] battling autogenerated accounts coming in to the system and taking them out before they go live — but bad actors are using hijacked accounts,” she said, referring to accounts that were created by real people but are later taken over by bad actors.
Kathy Kostrub-Waters has spent years trying to get Facebook to remove fake accounts run by romance scammers. She said the company fails to stop scammers from stealing photos of military members and creating profiles with them.
“We have asked the team we have worked with [at Facebook] on several occasions for numbers [of] the accounts they say they have deleted,” she said. Kostrub-Waters said she has yet to receive any concrete information from the company.
As for Facebook’s announcement that it removed close to 2.2 billion accounts, she views it as a calculated move.
“It’s ALL to put minds at ease so they can get through another hurdle of not having to be Federally Regulated,” she said in an email.