Amid growing concerns about the sustainability of its marketing platform, Facebook has been found to be home to a vast amount of illegitimate accounts, numbering more than 83 million at last count.
There are currently 950 million monthly active user accounts on the social network, of which 8.7% are duplicates, misclassified or “undesirable.” A duplicate account occurs when one individual maintains more than one profile under the same name. A misclassified account is a personal profile created for a business or other non-human entity like a pet, or when one user creates several accounts under different assumed names. An undesirable account is one where a user spams other accounts, spreads malware or similarly abuses their online privileges. Of the illegitimate Facebook accounts, 4.8% are duplicates, 2.4% are misclassified and 1.5% are undesirable; all of these go against Facebook’s terms of service.
According to Facebook, the incidence of fake and duplicate accounts is much higher in developing markets like Turkey and Indonesia and “meaningfully lower” in developed countries like the US and Australia. But as the above estimates were based on a review of a small sample of accounts, they may not represent the actual number of such accounts all that accurately. Still, the figures are significant enough to warrant serious attention. If illegitimate accounts continue to flourish, Facebook could suffer a blow to its reputation and lose valuable business from companies thinking of advertising on the site.
In recent company filings, Facebook stated: “We generate a substantial majority of our revenue from advertising. The loss of advertisers, or reduction in spending by advertisers with Facebook, could seriously harm our business.” As of the first half of 2012, 83% of company revenues came in from advertisers. But with the growing number of fake accounts, companies can expect that many clicks and likes will come from users who are not real, and Facebook stands to lose a lot of money should the trend be allowed to escalate. If advertisers stop using Facebook’s marketing tools or employ them at lower rates, both of which are distinct possibilities at this point, Facebook will have to consider alternative avenues for making its profits. And fake accounts don’t just make it difficult to sell advertising; they also create security risks for users on the social network.
It is tough, perhaps impossible, to eliminate phony accounts without users reporting fake account behaviour to Facebook staff; verifying geographic location and attributing mobile users are also no easy feats. And even if Facebook renews its efforts to weed out illegitimate accounts in the aims of furthering its business aims, it stands to hurt many activists who have few other means of far-reaching communication.
Registering under assumed names may be the only way for activists and protesters to gain a modicum of privacy and get their message out in countries where free expression or criticism of authority are not tolerated. As its user count approaches one billion, Facebook should focus on those undesirable accounts causing trouble for their users and advertisers rather than on those pseudonymous accounts engaged in political activism. Sorting the good from the bad will not be an easy task by any means, but it will ultimately decide the future of the social network.
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