Oh, no. Pied Piper bought fake users.
The most recent episode of the HBO TV series, “Silicon Valley,” (spoiler alert) ends with the revelation that one member of the team saved the fictional startup by buying the services of a fake-user company in India.
It’s a fascinating scene. The show’s closing shot shows a room filled with cigarette-smoking Indian employees paid to use Pied Piper’s app under fake accounts, just to boost the company’s “Active Daily User” numbers.
In the real Silicon Valley, in fact, and across the IT industry, in general, the fake user problem is already troublesome, and it’s about to get much worse.
Why do tech companies and other startups create fake users? As with Pied Piper, one reason is to convince real users that a Web-based service is popular and, therefore, more appealing.
Inside the World of Fake User Accounts
The online hook-up site Ashley Madison is reportedly overrun by fake accounts. Most men are real users, but most of the accounts claiming to represent women apparently are fake.
The dating app Tinder also has fake user accounts set up to lure real users off the app and onto another site or app where they can be scammed with cons, identity thieves or malware, according to researchers at Symantec and Panda Security. Many of these fake accounts are used by spambots, which reportedly imitate the speech patterns of flirtatious women, and sometimes men.
Another reason to create fake accounts is to post phony online reviews. Amazon recently filed lawsuits against three sellers for using sock puppet accounts to post fake reviews. (They posed as consumers but were in fact “reviewing” their own products. And these sellers were allegedly prolific—some 30 to 45 percent of the companies’ reviews were fake. The lawsuits are nothing new, according to Amazon, which claims to have sued more than 1,000 fake-review posters.
As with the fictional Pied Piper, the easiest way to blanket any site, service or app with fake users is by simply hiring a company that provides fake-user services, which typically cost a few pennies per “user.” A photo went viral last year that supposedly shows a woman in front of a bank of dozens of smartphones at a “Chinese App Store ranking manipulation farm.”
Unscrupulous startups are just one minor contributor to the global phenomenon of fake users. The most prolific creators of fake social accounts are actually government propagandists.
A recent Harvard study of China’s “50-cent army” found that fake accounts created by people paid by the Chinese government number in the hundreds of thousands, and this “army” posts nearly 450 million comments and posts per year. (It’s called the “50-cent army” because freelancers used to be paid 50 cents per post to advocate for the Chinese government.
Within China, social media users call them “Internet Apes” because they “ape” the government line. Now, according to the report, most posters are regular employees of the Chinese government who don’t get paid extra for the posts. The researchers also found that these fake accounts and paid-for comments are not centrally planned, but executed by the Communist Party itself and by various branches of the Chinese government.
Russia has reportedly also adopted the practice. So has the Central Intelligence Agency.
Of course, propaganda has existed since the beginning of human history and swaying public opinion by astro-turfing the social sites is one of the easiest, most cost-effective and persuasive methods ever devised.
Every recent American presidential election is attended by the creation of massive numbers of fake social media accounts to astro-turf public opinion in favor of one candidate or another.
According to one report, about 8 percent of presidential candidate Donald Trump and 7 percent of Hillary Clinton’s Twitter followers are fake accounts. That estimate is conservative—some reports say the majority of the candidates’ social media followers are fake.
Reports claim that a Hillary Clinton political action committee (PAC) has spent a million dollars this year to counter anti-Clinton posts on Facebook, Twitter, Instagram and Reddit. The initiative is called Barrier Breakers. Some participating accounts were real, but many were created for purpose.
Both the Bernie Sanders and Donald Trump campaigns have complained about the project, and launched their own counter-Clinton programs, some using the hashtag #CorrectThis on Twitter and elsewhere to communicate that opposition.
A thread on the anonymous image board Website 4chan involved Donald Trump fans planning to create large numbers of fake accounts on Twitter pretending to be supporters of Bernie Sanders and Hillary Clinton in order to troll them into attacking each other.
Hordes of Fake Users Scamming Social Media, eCommerce Sites
Even real accounts can be converted to fake accounts. The practice of hijacking a large number of legitimate accounts and turning them into fake accounts seems to be getting more common. Individuals or companies with large social followings are taken over and replaced by bots, usually bots that automatically post material objectionable to the targeted account.
For example, the Twitter accounts used by thousands of comedians, athletes, journalists and others this year have been taken over by spambots, blasting adult content to people who had followed each celebrity.
In the wake of the mass shooting in Orlando, Fla., which took place in a gay nightclub and for which the terrorist group ISIS claimed responsibility, hackers cracked the Twitter accounts of various ISIS sympathizers and auto-posted Gay pride tweets. Some of those ISIS accounts themselves were already fake accounts created to illegally support and recruit for ISIS, and became doubly fake after the hack.
As with all social networks, Facebook has been plagued by fake user accounts. Some are created to scam people and con them out of money. Other fake accounts are set up to create a cover of anonymity for the harassment and trolling of real users.
Facebook is alone in asserting a so-called “real names” policy, but has no way to enforce it. If your actual name sounds unusual—say, Rusty Pipes or Amanda Blackhorse—Facebook may demand to see proof. But if anyone creates a fake account using a more common-sounding name, Facebook won’t question it. Facebook’s “real names” policy is really a “normal names” policy.
Recently, Facebook started using an automated system to flag possible fake accounts, which are sent to a team of Facebook employees for review.
The Creation of Fake Followers Will Become an AI Arms Race
The fake-user problem is a large, damaging and growing one.
TeleSign research found that 82 percent of businesses struggle with fake users and that 43 percent deliberately allow them to exist in their “ecosystem” because taking steps to weed them out would annoy legitimate users during the registration process. The TeleSign report estimated that 10 percent of all user accounts are fake and that 21 percent of real users have been victimized in one way or another by these fake accounts.
The problem of fake user accounts has gotten so bad that some countries, including the UK, are now thinking about prosecuting perpetrators criminally. Those cases would be limited to the creation of fake accounts for the purposes of trolling and harassment.
Sadly, law enforcement will never be able to keep up with the stealthiness, speed and volume of fake-user account economy. We need better technology.
A Cornell computer science graduate student named Yixuan Li and a professor named John Hopcroft are working with Google to figure out how to spot “fake social engagement.” They point out that it’s cheap and easy to buy thousands of fake followers on Twitter, YouTube, Amazon and Facebook and then use those fake accounts to simulate user engagement. The purpose of all that engagement is to game social site algorithms to boost the rankings of a video or post.
The researchers’ system is called “LEAS” (Local Expansion At Scale). The idea is to create something called an “engagement relationship graph” of accounts that are known spamming accounts, and watching for groups of accounts that work together in ways that are unlikely to happen among ordinary users.
They’ve so far focused on YouTube, but the method can be extended to massive data sets and other social networks.
LEAS is a good start, but won’t be able to keep up with future trends in the faking of followers.
One of the most significant trends in the past two years is the availability of new artificial intelligence tools for developers. Big data AI is rapidly becoming a commoditized, ubiquitous service—you know, like electricity or Internet connectivity.
Fake user account spambots will become so good and programmable through AI that it will be impossible to tell which accounts are real and which are fake.
The coming wave of artificially intelligent bots will create fake accounts by the millions, which will turbo-charge harassment, astro-turfing, trolling, fraud and propaganda.
The bottom line is that if you think your social media friends and followers are a bunch of phonies, you may be exactly right.