Facebook removes 3B fake accounts, but how many missed?

It’s not clear whether Facebook is getting better at catching made-up accounts, or problem worsening

Facebook removed more than 3 billion fake accounts from October to March, twice as many as the previous six months, the company said Thursday.

Nearly all of them were caught before they had a chance to become “active” users of the social network.

ALSO READ: Facebook cracks down on groups spreading harmful information

Nonetheless, Facebook’s new report didn’t say how many fake accounts it also missed. As a result, it’s not clear whether Facebook is getting better at catching made-up accounts or if the problem itself is just getting worse — or both.

The increase in removals shows the challenges Facebook faces in removing accounts created by computers to spread spam, fake news and other objectionable material. Even as Facebook’s detection tools get better, so do the efforts by the creators of these fake accounts.

The new numbers come as the company grapples with challenge after challenge, ranging from fake news to Facebook’s role in elections interference, hate speech and incitement to violence in the U.S., Myanmar, India and elsewhere.

Facebook employs thousands of people to review posts, photos, comments and videos for violations. Some things are also detected without humans, using artificial intelligence. Both humans and AI make mistakes and Facebook has been accused of political bias as well as ham-fisted removals of posts discussing —rather than promoting — racism.

CEO Mark Zuckerberg has called for government regulation to decide what should be considered harmful content and on other issues. But at least in the U.S., government regulation of speech could run into First Amendment hurdles.

Of the 3.4 billion accounts removed in the six-month period, 1.2 billion came during the fourth quarter of 2018 and 2.2 billion during the first quarter of this year. More than 99 per cent of these were disabled before someone reported them to the company. Facebook says most of the fake accounts were blocked “within minutes” of their creation. In the April-September period last year, Facebook blocked 1.5 billion accounts.

Facebook has 2.4 billion active monthly users. Most of the removed accounts won’t count in this figure. Still, the company estimates that 5% of its monthly active users are fake.

Facebook attributed the spike in the removed accounts to “automated attacks by bad actors who attempt to create large volumes of accounts at one time.” The company declined to say where these attacks originated, only that they were from different parts of the world.

Barbara Ortutay, The Associated Press

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