Culture Spotlight

The rise of clone accounts and the ugly reality of Facebook as political weapon

Glitch or not, private messages containing threats are unlikely to be random and machine-generated, especially if they appear to be politically motivated. By DOMINIC LIGOT 
ANCX | Jun 08 2020

Mica, a college senior, wakes up Saturday with some notifications on Facebook Messenger. Quickly going through them, two are invitations from strangers. 

One is a blind spam message inviting her to yet another insurance seminar. Mica quickly deletes it. 

The other message is from another person named Mica. In fact, from someone with her exact name—and it is strange. "Akala nyo magaling kayo? May oras ka din."

Another senior, John, is having a similar Saturday. Reading a message from another John: "Handa ka na ba mamatay? Tuloy mo lang mga hashtag mo boy."

Dee, a freelance artist, is transacting with a possible buyer of her work on Facebook. She normally gets invites on Facebook from strangers interested in her work. One stranger offers to buy a number of pieces and asks her for a quote and her PayPal. Dee gives her email address for billing. The stranger replies: "Salamat sa email mo. Susundan ka na ng militar."

Apart from these distressful messages, Mica, John, and Dee discover another thing in common: out of curiosity, they search for their own names and find that new Mica, John, and Dee accounts have suddenly appeared. The accounts have no photos, friends, or posts. They seem newly made. Disturbed with this Mica, John, and Dee start reporting the accounts to Facebook for investigation.

 

Distressful messages 

Over the last few days, more than a handful of Facebook users have reported the appearance of "doppelganger" accounts with their names. Some received similar distressful messages from the clones, with a few referring to terrorism, political actions, and threats of military surveillance. A number of users feel they are being targeted for their political views, linking the threats to vocal opinions online and participation in activism. 

Not all the victims are active politically though. One user had not used her Facebook for nearly a year, and after hearing the noise just happened to check and found three accounts bearing her name.

Jack, an IT forensics consultant, wrote a small program to check on an FB user complaining about doppelganger accounts using a <firstname.lastname.number> combination. The first scan found more than 180 accounts bearing the same name. 

Not all the discovered accounts were clones though—some were legitimate and just happened to share names with the target user, but it was hard to establish how many other users would share similar URLs.

Manila Bulletin tech columnist Art Samaniego warned netizens not to jump to conclusions about political targeting and advised users to follow best practices: report the cases to Facebook and wait for action. "Even my FB account has a duplicate with a blank face even if I have not posted anything about the (Anti-terror) bill. Let me remind you that the bad guys do not discriminate on the basis of your political stand, race, religion, nationality, color, gender, sexual orientation, social class, economic status, disability, or age."

 

Threats cannot be glitches 

In a radio interview, NBI Cybercrime Division Chief Victor Lorenzo speculated that the phenomenon was a glitch. He said that Facebook is currently grappling with widespread protests against racism and police brutality and that may be putting pressure on the social media site. He advised victims to coordinate with Facebook and the NBI if they feel they are being targeted.

Glitch or not, private messages containing threats are unlikely to be random and machine-generated, especially if they appear to be politically motivated. In 2018, the Cambridge Analytica scandal brought to public light the use of Facebook and data mining for political targeting and manipulation. In 2019, a research group led by Jonathan Ong exposed the existence of troll armies—individuals paid to create fake accounts for the purpose of engaging in aggressive political social media activity such as creating and discrediting social media trends, and engaging in online harassment. 

The term “Internet Troll” traces its roots to the early days of the internet, referring to any user that intentionally uses bullying and inflammatory discussion in forums, chatrooms and bulletin boards.

Ever since Facebook introduced Ads and Developer access in 2007, the platform has become a major avenue for marketing and advertising, rivalling traditional channels like TV, radio, and outdoor ads. The platform has also become the modern venue for community engagement with Facebook groups of various geographic, demographic, and subject matter interest. Various types of tech suppliers have also appeared, providing Facebook and related services for a fee. One supplier claims to provide bulk account creation spanning various platforms, claiming the ability to quickly boot up various phone- and email 

-verified accounts, which can then be used for various types of social media mass activity.

 

Facebook as venue for mass action 

All these elements make Facebook a fertile ground for political speech and activism. A 2012 study looked at online political groups on Facebook and offline political engagement, and found a strong relationship between participation on Facebook groups and offline political activity. However the study noted a poor relationship between online group discussions and political knowledge – suggesting that online political discourse is of lesser quality. A 2014 paper studied the use of Facebook in political discourse in South Africa and found that political parties have started to use Facebook for monitoring purposes, and the youth already preferred Facebook as the venue to engage in political debates.

Apart from political speech and trolling, Facebook has already been the venue for aggressive political mass action. In March 2020, the popular Facebook blog page of OWWA Deputy Administrator Mocha Uson was the subject of mass reporting by netizens critical of her political views and controversial declarations. The page went down for a few days before Uson rebooted her blog on another page.

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Political mass action with adverse consequences on Facebook has been documented elsewhere. An extreme case in 2018 reported by the New York Times involved members of the Myanmar military using Facebook as a venue for ethnic cleansing, posting hate messages, propaganda, and fake stories to incite the population to genocide against the Rohingya people – calling them terrorists.

“Terorista kayo,” says the fake John and Mica clones to their namesake originals. 

“Ano ba ang ginawa ko?” the artist Dee pleads with her now dubious customer. 

The troll replies with a link to an NPA (New People’s Army) recruitment video.  

Back in his lab, forensics expert Jack checks on his search program, which he left running for several minutes. It was already up to 10,000 and had found nearly 500 accounts with the same name as the initial victim, and it was still running.

Dominic Ligot is a data analyst, researcher, software developer, entrepreneur and technologist. He is the founder of CirroLytix a research company focusing on machine learning, data ethics, and social impact. He also co-founded Data Ethics PH, a monthly online meetup discussing the trends in the misuse of data and algorithms that can harm society. In 2019, Dominic led the Philippines team that won the Grand Prize in Break The Fake: an international hackathon competition against fake news and disinformation.

Mica, Dee, John, and Jack are pseudonyms for actual people. Some details were altered to protect their identities.

 

References:

1. Who is behind surge in fake Facebook accounts? https://www.scmp.com/week-asia/politics/article/3088067/who-behind-surge-fake-facebook-accounts-philippines

2. '#MochaUsonIsOverParty' trends worldwide as Mocha Uson critics ‘mass report’ her FB page https://www.msn.com/en-ph/entertainment/celebrity/supernumbermochausonisoverparty-trends-worldwide-as-mocha-uson-critics-mass-report-her-fb-page/ar-BB11tj2N

3. What is an Internet Troll? https://www.howtogeek.com/465416/what-is-an-internet-troll-and-how-to-handle-trolls/

4. A Genocide Incited on Facebook, With Posts From Myanmar’s Military https://www.nytimes.com/2018/10/15/technology/myanmar-facebook-genocide.html

5. Facebook and political engagement: A study of online political group membership and offline political engagement https://www.sciencedirect.com/science/article/pii/S0747563212000787

6. The use of Facebook for political commentary in South Africa https://www.sciencedirect.com/science/article/abs/pii/S0736585312000755

7. Troll armies, a growth industry in the Philippines, may soon be coming to an election near you https://www.latimes.com/politics/story/2019-11-19/troll-armies-routine-in-philippine-politics-coming-here-next

8. NBI: Facebook copycat accounts may be due to 'glitch' https://news.abs-cbn.com/amp/news/06/08/20/nbi-facebook-copycat-accounts-may-be-due-to-glitch

9. Art Samaniego Facebook Post https://www.facebook.com/artsamaniego/posts/10163465432745398