Sheryl Sandberg’s testimony to Congress revealed that fraudulent pages are being created as fast as the social network can delete them.

By Siva Vaidhyanathan

Mr. Vaidhyanathan is the author of a book about Facebook’s impact on democracy.

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From October to March, Facebook deleted 1.27 billion fake sites, the company’s chief operating officer, Sheryl Sandberg, told legislators on Wednesday.CreditCreditTom Brenner for The New York Times

“As of this morning, the Facebook community is now officially two billion people!” Facebook’s chief executive, Mark Zuckerberg, wrote on his Facebook page in July 2017. “We’re making progress connecting the world, and now let’s bring the world closer together.”

It was a monumental achievement. But on Wednesday, Sheryl Sandberg, Facebook’s chief operating officer, revealed a number that was almost as startling. She told the Senate Intelligence Committee that from October to last March, Facebook deleted 1.3 billion fake accounts. In other words, an alarming portion of those more than two billion users — more than the company had publicly acknowledged — were fake.

That number should prompt tough questions from Facebook users and advertisers. How many fake accounts were there before Facebook instituted this aggressive defense in 2017? What sort of sites are these — political propaganda or attempted advertising fraud? What countries do these accounts come from? How can anyone — advertisers, investors or Facebook users concerned about its role in our culture and democracy — trust the integrity of the Facebook experience?

Facebook’s latest “transparency report” states that fake pages account for only 3 percent to 4 percent of monthly active users at any given time. How can 1.3 billion accounts account for only 3 percent to 4 percent of 2.2 billion users? The answer is that such pages are going up faster than Facebook can swat them down.

Ms. Sandberg wants us to see this as success. A number so large must mean Facebook is doing something right. Facebook’s machines are determining patterns of origin and content among these pages and quickly quashing them.

Still, we judge exterminators not by the number of roaches they kill, but by the number that survive. If 3 percent of 2.2 billion active users are fake at any time, that’s still 66 million sources of potentially false or dangerous information.

One thing is clear about this arms race: It is an absurd battle of machine against machine. One set of machines create the fake accounts. Another deletes them. This happens millions of times every month. No group of human beings has the time to create millions, let alone billions, of accounts on Facebook by hand. People have been running computer scripts to automate the registration process. That means Facebook’s machines detect the fakes rather easily. (Facebook says that fewer than 1.5 percent of the fakes were identified by users.)

Ms. Sandberg did not tell the committee in open session how those fake accounts are geographically distributed or what purpose they serve, assuming that Facebook has that information. She included the number in a section of her comments called “combating foreign election interference and advancing election integrity,” but beyond that, she offered no evidence that these fake accounts had anything to do with elections.

Whatever the purpose of this torrent of fakes, someone thinks it’s worth the effort to make new ones just a little faster than Facebook’s machines can knock them down. This means it’s most likely the vast majority were created to trick or defraud Facebook users with, for example, commercial pages for fraudulent goods or services.

Ms. Sandberg sets a high standard for her company. “Our adversaries are determined, creative, and well-funded,” she told the committee. “But we are even more determined — and we will continue to fight back.”

It would be better if she had been more modest. She should lower expectations and declare that there is nothing Facebook can do to exterminate all the pests. With 2.2 billion profiles in more than 100 languages, even a small error rate can wreak havoc. With algorithms amplifying content that generates passionate responses, the crazy conspiratorial stuff will always rocket around Facebook faster and farther than the thoughtful condolence or the cute pictures of golden retrievers. And with that powerful advertising system, Facebook will always be the platform of choice for dishonest or hateful parties.

Facebook has put impressive effort into reforming itself around the margins. But considering the harm that Facebook has caused — sharing user data with unauthorized third parties, spreading propaganda that sets off ethnic violence, hosting attacks on elections around the world — exterminating most of the pests is not good enough. Stopping all of them is impossible. Facebook is too big to govern and too big to fix. We might just have to accept that.

Siva Vaidhyanathan is a professor of media studies at the University of Virginia and the author of “Antisocial Media: How Facebook Disconnects Us and Undermines Democracy.”





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