Sleuthing for Democracy! Find Fake Facebook Accounts!

Fake Facebook accounts are created for several reasons:


Influence political views:  Russians have been using fake Facebook accounts to sow political discord by spreading misinformation on already divisive issues in American politics, such as religion, immigration, social justice and guns.  Trolls create fake Facebook accounts and use them to comment on public posts, inciting anger and dragging people into time-consuming and useless debates. See this video for a quick primer on how trolls influenced the 2016 election:  https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=gqbvRmPOgQ4.


Identity theft:  Cyber hackers create fake Facebook accounts with the aim of trying to friend people and get access to their personal information. 


Make money:  Fake Facebook accounts can also be created just to make money. Buying and selling Facebook fans is a multimillion dollar business, as both companies and individuals pay big money to get fans and likes to their page.  Since software to create these fake Facebook pages is less than $200, it is easy to make big profits.


Don’t let yourself get taken in by a fake Facebook account!  I have seen people getting into lengthy arguments with trolls on Facebook posts by our elected officials, as well as on public comments in local papers.


Over the past year, I have been making a list of ways to tell if a Facebook Account is fake.[1]  I’m sharing this list as a small effort to combat the efforts of those who seek to spread discord and undermine democracy in our country.


There are two types of fake Facebook accounts:  those operated by a bot and those operated by a malicious actor.  Irrespective of type, several warning signs can tip you off to a fake account.  While none of these signs is an indicator of a fake Facebook account on its own, if you encounter several of them, notify Facebook immediately!!  It is worth reporting because Facebook will investigate an account when it receives around 10-20 reports about the account.


Following are the warning signs of a fake Facebook account.  Grab your magnifying glass, trench coat and sunglasses and get ready to do some intriguing detective work to help save our democracy!  


Different name in the Facebook URL:  Go to your wall and look at your URL.  You will see your username in the URL.  A fake Facebook account may have a different name from the username in the URL.  Be wary.  Fake account creators are becoming better at hiding this indicator and may have changed the username in the URL as well.  Also, some people with legitimate accounts change their displayed name for various reasons, like for privacy concerns.


Beautiful profile photos:  Since an enticing photo increases the chance of having a friend request accepted, bots and malicious users exploit beauty and often use pictures of attractive men or women.


Downloaded profile photo:  One of the easiest ways to determine that a Facebook account is fake is by examining the photo.  Fake accounts often use a profile photo downloaded from somewhere else online.  To tell if a photo was borrowed:

  • Bring up Google Image Search
  • Download the profile photo from the Facebook page that you suspect is fake
  • Drag and drop the photo into the Google Image Search bar
  • Click the Search button
  • f the photo is from a fake Facebook account, you should see matches in the search results; Google will either return an exact match (with information like names), or pictures similar to the original 

Use of other people’s photos and names:  If fake accounts want to appear legit, they have to get their photos from somewhere such as well-known celebrities or lesser-known, hard-to-recognize actors. Sometimes they will pull pictures from random sites, like company employee pages or outdoor event websites.  There are obviously many, many places to find photos.  Fake accounts even use names and pictures of real people on Facebook and then block the real person they’re imitating, so as not to be found by that person.  Strategies to find out if an account is using a real person’s photo or name include:

  • Download or take a cropped screenshot of an account’s more distinctive personal pics and then use Google Image Search to search for those images
  • Search Facebook for that same name; sometimes you will find several fake accounts with the same name and even the same pics

Very few pictures:  Bots and malicious actors tend to post very few photos. They use minimum effort to create the illusion that a real person is behind the account and do not bother to flesh out a personal life.  Real Facebook users tend to post pictures of their kids, their extended family members and funny memes.  If you suspect that a Facebook user is fake, check the photo stream associated with the account. If there are only a couple of photos, and the account is fairly old, then you can be fairly certain that the account is fake.


Weird biography: bWhen you click on somebody’s Facebook link, you can see a brief biography about the user on the left-hand side of the page.  If the biography information on the account seems unrealistic, it’s a sign that the account is a fake.  For example, if somebody claims to have been born in Cape Cod, Massachusetts, but went to school in Mumbai, India, and now works for a car repair shop in Tulsa, Oklahoma, then you have a good reason to suspect that account.


Patterns in profile details:  Most fake account creators are lazy and use well-known city or state names in profile details.  For example, a profile might have:

  • Teacher at New York University
  • Lives in New York, New York
  • From New York, New York

Non-responsiveness:  Sending a message is a great test because, although bots can easily accept friend requests, they cannot respond to messages.


Lots of likes:  Some bot-controlled accounts are set up to like a certain number of pages a day.  Over time this can add up.


Too many or too few friends:  A sign of a fake account is one with either thousands of friends or fewer than ten friends.  Some real Facebook users do have that many friends (or not a lot), so do not jump to a conclusion about popular Facebook users.


No local friends:  The more local the friends, the more likely the person is to be real. A global friendship list, with very few or no local friends, suggests that you are dealing with a fake account.


Lack of recent activity:  Most people on Facebook use Facebook fairly regularly.  If you suspect a fake Facebook profile, check the recent activity on the user’s wall.  If the timeline is strangely absent of activity, the account is probably fake. 


Weird conversations:  An account could be fake if you see conversations that people would never have, like this:

  • Hi
  • Great photo
  • Thank you
  • You are great
  • Good day!

No mutual friends:  Receiving a Facebook friend request from somebody you do not know is a red flag.  It is an even larger red flag if the two of you share no mutual friends.  Send the requestor a message asking questions like “why do you want to be my friend,” or “what do we have in common?”  Remember – a fake account run by a bot cannot respond!


No tags:  A real person is generally tagged here and there as part of the Facebook sharing experience.


Odd shift in content:  Scroll back through the feed and look for an obvious shift in content or the language used.  Such shifts might be accompanied by a new profile picture.  To jump to an earlier year, you can use the shortcut year selector at the top of the page.


Strange friends list:  Click on the Friends list and look for an unusual number of ethnic names that conflict with what you would expect that account to have. For example, a Texas conservative with a Friends list of almost all middle-Eastern-sounding names.


Disconnected groups, likes, check-ins, etc.:  Go to the wall and click the “More” button to look at different activity sections. Make sure you scroll all the way to the bottom of each one, as they are in chronological order. So, for example, you might check out the Likes of an account (Facebook pages they’ve liked) and see recent U.S.-related Likes and then, towards the bottom, see a bunch of Macedonian-related Likes.


Connections to other fake accounts:  Some fake accounts are part of a fake-account network. These accounts Like each other’s posts and pictures and may even make short comments or post emojis to further the illusion. When trying to find networks of fake accounts, it’s important to examine the very first publicly visible posts made by the account.  For example: you scroll down to the very first public post, made only a few months ago, and it’s a profile pic upload. (You could also use the Photos tab as a shortcut.) You look at the Likes on that photo and take note of the names. Then you look at those accounts and go back to some of their initial posts and look at who Liked those; you may start to see some overlap of names. When combined with several of the other fake-account clues for even a single account, this can be a sure sign that the entire network is fake.

[1] In this blog I have cut, pasted, and edited from various sources to whom I am indebted for their research.  Some of my sources are:  https://www.wikihow.com/Reveal-a-Fake-Facebook-Account;

https://medium.com/@apokerplayer/top-7-signs-a-facebook-account-is-fake-1eb942591887; and