Fake social media profiles: My own experience with Facebook

Just read this blog in the economist, stating how many social media fans/ followers etc are actually fake machine generated accounts. The Blog mentions that Mitt Romney gained 17% followers in a day and interestingly, a friend tweeted about Mitt Romney losing 11 followers per minute.


Arguably this machine generation of fake profiles, is of some benefit to the organization ( say Romney), but I bet also helps build up the numbers of social media service.
A few weeks ago Facebook prompted me to friend one Harsh Taneja. It was indeed a fake profile of myself. The picture and the “about me” description among other details were scraped from this blog. Interestingly this clone of mine and I also had 7 or 8 mutual friends already. Curious I decided to send a friend request to myself and magically it was accepted in some hours. I reported the profile and I think in a day it was taken down ( as I am unable to find it on searching).

Made me think, it is indeed to easy to create fairly real looking machine generated profiles, given the amount of self descriptions we leave on the web, that can be viewed publicly or semi-privately. And it is quite easy for these profiles to circulate unchecked, as people can entirely miss seeing them, forget to report. In some other cases, they may be of people not on the service altogether ( say people who use blogger but not twitter, and their About Me pages on blogger provide fodder to generate these fake twitter profiles.) Scary!

Finally, I decided to use this service to check my own twitter followers and found that 5% of the followers were fake and another 13% inactive. Perhaps explains why tweeting some random but generic word such as Forex, or Television instantly adds a few followers.

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Facebook ads impact is just more ‘measurable’ than TV ads, not necessarily ‘effective’

They have been talking for a while about the death of the 30 second commercial. And social media were not the first technologies that inspired such claims.Yet, the size of Facebook with its tightly connected ‘anatomy’ has made these claims more vociferous. (The average degree of separation between any two people on Facebook is just 3.8, means that just in four steps a message can actually travel from anyone to anyone else, on average).

A recent post exemplifying this refrain, claims that Facebook promotion ( paid ads + all other kinds of messages) deliver 70 times more impressions ( eyeballs that see the ad) for the same cost than an ad on prime time television in the UK ( on coronation street) and 180 times more impressions than the same campaigns in the US . They argue that a well run Facebook campaign can generate 4 to 5 billion impressions versus the TV campaign that reaches a 100 million for the same duration. The claim is problematic due to the way impressions are counted for the two media.

The Facebook number is reached by counting the people touched directly (who friend or like the brand pages), their friends (who see it in their feeds, comments or messages) and friends of friends of those directly touched. In other words upto 3 levels removed from the campaign. For TV they simply count the number of eyeballs that saw the commercial ( the way marketers have computed ad effectiveness for TV ads for decades). There seems an implied an assumption that prime time television advertising only reaches those who see it directly. However just as Facebook page activity, television advertising too inspires conversations and recommendations through word of mouth that can make it reach a significant multiple of that 100 million, especially over the course of the year. In fact, the worth of one such conversation or recommendation (including on Facebook) ‘may’ be worth a few hundred Facebook impressions, a miniscule number of which may actually count themselves. However, obtaining any similar accurate measurement for the extended impact of TV advertising is next to impossible. However, his does not mean that there is no extended impact.

On first degree impressions, TV campaigns clearly achieve much more than the biggest Facebook pages( even Coca-Cola has just 53 million likes). Next, it may be worth pondering why these extended 4 to 5 billion impressions may not really count for a lot. Consider that for each person who likes a brand page, that activity appears on some laundry list of notifications of 16% of their 190 friends (Currently 16% of FB users are able to see such posts, and the average number of friends on FB is 190). A miniscule number of these impressions are likely to be welcomed or even consumed. Those receiving them may be just users who haven’t optimized their news feeds enough to avoid such notifications. Finally the post claims that Facebook itself did not have any data on the third level of sharing (to friends of friends of directly touched). This will be presumably much lower than the 16% on level 1. Think of chance that a friend of your friend is interested in the activity by their friend ( who is not a mutual friend) with a campaign or brand page. Since these data were not available, they used some triangulation to estimate some multipliers, and do not mention either the multipliers (no of people reached further by each person) or the attenuation (what % of people’s friends will receive such a message).

Of course other points worth considering are 1) why people like brand pages on Facebook (to get discounts!) and 2) how did they learn about these brands (surely not exclusively through FB campaigns or noticing friends who liked FB campaigns, but perhaps through prime time advertising and conversations with friends and family). These concerns make the value of these impressions questionable, even if their sheer volume is estimated properly. Of course the same can be argued for TV advertising that people do not want to see, but end up watching.

In sum, the key point here is that just because Facebook due to the traces users leave, allows one to measure how a campaign circulates beyond the first degree impressions and TV does not, one cannot conclude that Facebook campaigns are that much more cost effective than prime time TV.

Quick Updates on the NASA Diwali Image Phenomenon : Socially Constructed Thruths and the Persistence of Popularity

October 26th ( 2:40 Pm Chicago Time Less than 48 hrs on) ;66, 248 Shares  ( three times over 22,000 before)

October 25th ( 14 hrs on)

Remember in my original post I had speculated that as India would wake up , we would see an exponential rate of increase in the alternate truth. Yes the 1000 odd shares on that thread have grown to 23,000 ( in 12 -13 hrs) in that thread ( potential audience of 7-8 million just from this source).

Interestingly, there were many counter-voices in some of the threads that circulated who argued with similar logic as to why the image was not one of Diwali.Some of these even pointed out to the original website of the image confirming that it wasn’t a Diwali image.  Yet the Euphoria continues to persist.

To me it reflects that on Social Media, once certain facts get socially constructed, it is very hard to let alternate facts percolate. In other words, their popularity will continue to persist, even though they have been proven wrong! There seems little room for course correction.

Social Media and The Problem with ‘Socially Constructed Truths’ : Why all Believed that the NASA Picture Was Clicked on Diwali

India and her diaspora worldwide was excited about Divali, (the festival of lights), and for good reason. A day before Divali,  October 25 2011 3:30 pm CT, I noticed that a map had become a ‘Facebook hit’. In less than 5 hrs,  the link had first appeared it had already been shared by 1000 odd people ( giving it a potential audience of at least 200,000). Remember I am reporting figures for only 1 thread that I could trace.

An idea took form that the picture was an illumination of the country on Diwali night. Of course most people related the distinct, yellow, green and red dots to the colors of fireworks.  When it popped on my wall ( as the 950th share) I immediately questioned that Colombo(Sri Lanka), Lahore (Pakistan) and Delhi could not be celebrating divali with the same ‘illumination’. (Some even speculated these were the remnants of Hindu legacies in these cities!) Also why would people in certain areas burst green colored fireworks when the rest of the country was bursting yellow.

Leave that, it was easy to explain the map if one understood some   development parameters and grade school geography of the region ( Electrical Connectivity and Population Density, Location of the cities, Mountains).

So I decided to question how could the illumination be different from any other night (when the Power grid hadn’t failed)? I commented with my reservations on the wall of the friend who had shared this with me. Seeing some merit in my reservations, he digged the original source of the picture and indeed found it had nothing to do with Divali. He found the original source on FB itself, when someone else like me ( a friend of a friend of his) had commented on their common friend’s share of this post with similar concerns and found this link.

But our counter-currents are far and few between. That they are the complete truth does not matter . As I write, the Indian diaspora on Facebook believes that the map is indeed a NASA picture clicked on a Divali evening. I am sure in a few hours when Indians wake up this ‘socially constructed truth’ will spread further and more widely. ( See my update tracking the numbers)

To me this is the grim reality of online social media!

Happy Divali Regardless

Twittervolutions aren’t Real Revolutions: Why India needs to take to the Streets

Recently there has been a lot of debate over what role social media, twitter in particular  played in the uprisings in the Middle East. Many said these platforms were important but others pushed the envelope by saying that these revolutions wouldn’t be successful without social media. The ongoing case of Anna Hazare’s fast unto death against Lokpal Bill in India is a natural experiment to test these arguments.

As I write: On ground: Sh Hazare’s fast has entered the second day today. There seems some momentum (150-200 people at Jantar Mantar) similar numbers in central locations in some other cities around the country.

On twitter: Thousands of people are tweeting their support.Many thousands more are ‘retweeting’ these tweets further. The topics are also top trends in twitter. There are 20-30 new tweets flowing in every minute for the last 3 hrs at least.  I ask ‘SO WHAT’.

I suspect the actual impact is nowhere as strong as the volume of tweets would suggest.Get into the content of tweets.

  1. It is mostly self styled opinion leaders, film stars and other celebrities enhancing their own brand value by tweeting for a good cause. These tweets are being retweeted by their followers.
  2. Another category of tweets is the news channels trying to enhance their viewership by seeking opinion polls and advertising telecasts related to the issues.
  3. Of course some jokes are among the most circulated tweets.

In sum, there is no collective action being planned actively on twitter nor is twitter contributing to more people joining the actual movement.

Overall the movement remains as strong or weak as it would have remained without this social media intervention. Perhaps there is greater awareness but to my mind tweeting about this is not very different for a majority of people than say congratulating the Indian team for winning the cricket world cup.

In short, despite the immense exuberance on social media, this revolution is yet to become exuberant on the steets, which was the defining aspect of Middle East uprisings. For instance, Interntional news websites (like BBC, CNN and NYT) do not even have a mention of it on their home pages.

They and many others will only take note when Indians in large numbers  take their tweets to the streets.

To become comfortable with the new, learn from the old:FaceBook and the Phone-Book

Recently a friend informed me about how she ‘unfriends’ people in her FB list from time to time. These are mostly people who she doesn’t perceive any reason for them to be in her network. I thought she was an odd one out. But a small survey (among my FB network) revealed that 2/3rd of my 50 respondents deleted existing friend connections regularly.

I do admit that my FB network isn’t exactly restricted to friends. Many, in fact are less than acquaintances. If I run through the complete list, I am sure I won’t remember when I last interacted with at least 50% of the people. Worse for about some10% I even won’t know who they are!
However, it never really bothers me that there are people on my Facebook who aren’t really friends or acquaintances. For reasons I will explain here:

Think of a typical social interaction today – Say I meet a friend’s friend at a dinner. We talk and one of us suggests that we stay in touch. The next day s/he sends me an FB request. We never really interact after that and perhaps ever won’t but remain on each others’ FB.
Rewind 5 years – Same people. Similar meeting place. Similar conversations. One suggests we stay in touch. I take out my mobile phone, ask his/her number and give a missed call. Consequently we have each others’ numbers on our cellphone address books.
Rewind 20 years – We pull out our pocket telephone/address diaries and store (write) each others’ contact details down. ( Someone in the group is organized enough to carry a pen or we ask the bearer at the restaurant!)

At what stage did one delete these so called lapsed contacts from one’s phone or a diary. When one ran into space problems, or bought a new phone or a new diary and had to transfer contacts.

FB basically allows you to create a very elaborate phone diary with extensive details (of course access controlled) that you can link to one another. Yes FB in principal is nothing more than a digital manifestation of the good old telephone/address diary. Except that there is no limitations of size or memory.
Thinking of FB as a the new shared, crowd-sourced phone book, you could perhaps stop deleting your unwanted friends.
Of course do not forget to invoke your privacy settings when you add a connection!