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Leon Kaye headshot

Facebook Cracks Down on Fake Accounts Ahead of French Presidential Election

By Leon Kaye

Will France be the latest domino of the world order to fall as populist anger continues to surge across the West? The polls are tightening with less than a week to go before Sunday’s first-round election, with some surveys suggesting far-left candidate Jean-Luc Mélenchon has suddenly come from nowhere and is not far behind the frontrunners, far-right firebrand Marine Le Pen and centrist Emmanuel Macron.

To that end, some fear that purveyors of fake news -- in a fashion similar to what erupted last year during the U.S. presidential election -- could tilt campaigns first in France and later this year in Germany. Earlier this month, the German cabinet approved a law that would fine social media companies up to US$53 million if they fail to quickly remove fake news postings touting racist or other hateful content from their sites.

While technology companies claim Germany’s law is far too onerous and threatens free speech, they also realize that becoming more proactive and taking action can keep the regulators at bay. Hence last week, Facebook adopted stronger measures against fake accounts, which are often the culprits behind the proliferation of fake news, in addition to what critics have been quick to describe as hate speech.

Shabnam Shaik, a technical program manager with Facebook, said the result was the removal of over 30,000 fake accounts within France.

Facebook says it has implemented technology that allows the company to identify bogus accounts quickly, while stopping deceptive content that can often spread virally across the Internet and social media channels.

“We’ve made improvements to recognize these inauthentic accounts more easily by identifying patterns of activity,” Shaik wrote, “without assessing the content itself. For example, our systems may detect repeated posting of the same content, or an increase in messages sent.”

And on Friday, Facebook announced that after a six-month operation, its engineers disrupted a huge spam operation that spanned countries such as Saudi Arabia, Bangladesh and Indonesia. Those accounts issued an onslaught of “fake likes” and comments using redirecting technologies, such as proxy servers, to mask their actual location.

In the past, the Silicon Valley giant also claimed to have developed mechanisms that stop fraudulent activity, including those pesky fake likes -- which, of course, can give postings an air of authenticity. In layperson’s terms, Facebook is continuing to roll out programs, including automated detection, which the company insists can compare the activity of real human beings to fake accounts, which can post or generate likes at a far more rapid and ridiculous pace than that of a real person.

Facebook made it clear that its attempts to weed out fake account activity will never be perfect, and some analysts were quick to agree -- and even described the company’s reaction as pallid at best.

In an op-ed for NBC News, technology writer Nikita Biryukov said that such moves by Facebook and other social media companies were unlikely to make much of a dent in what can be described as the global spam industry. In the underworld markets of fake social media accounts, such changes in security could even drive up the prices of generating fake accounts, Biryukov argued.

A pinprick,” Biryokov tweeted on Monday in response to Facebook claims that this fake account purge could help maintain the integrity of France’s elections. “A drop in the ocean,” chimed in Mariella Moon of the tech blog Engadget, noting that Facebook has amassed almost 1.9 billion accounts to date.

Meanwhile, some outlets, including the BBC, are attempting to fact-check fake news accusations that have dogged both Le Pen and Macron.

Image credit: Business France/Flickr

Leon Kaye headshot

Leon Kaye has written for 3p since 2010 and become executive editor in 2018. His previous work includes writing for the Guardian as well as other online and print publications. In addition, he's worked in sales executive roles within technology and financial research companies, as well as for a public relations firm, for which he consulted with one of the globe’s leading sustainability initiatives. Currently living in Central California, he’s traveled to 70-plus countries and has lived and worked in South Korea, the United Arab Emirates and Uruguay.

Leon’s an alum of Fresno State, the University of Maryland, Baltimore County and the University of Southern California's Marshall Business School. He enjoys traveling abroad as well as exploring California’s Central Coast and the Sierra Nevadas.

Read more stories by Leon Kaye