Fake Social Networking Profiles Still Big Problem, But Don't Expect Social Networking Sites to Care

The phony Facebook page of the assassinated Benazir Bhutto's son reminds users how often people fake identities for satirical purposes (or worse).

News yesterday that someone forged a fake Facebook profile of the 19-year-old son (and chosen successor) of the late Benazir Bhutto upset the Pakistan People's Party and caused the social networking company to remove the fabricated page. But as the dust settles on what could have been an embarrassing episode for the slain leader's son, don't expect Facebook or its competitors—which rely on eyeballs and advertisements to generate revenue—to prevent it from happening in the future.

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According to a report by The New York Times, publications such as The Globe and Mail in Canada and the Telegraph newspaper in London cited information posted on a fake Facebook page proclaiming to be that of Bilawal Bhutto Zardari, the son and chosen successor to the Pakistan People's Party's assassinated leader, Benazir Bhutto. According to the Times report, the fraudulent page made sweeping statements about Islamic extremism and at one point said simply of Bhutto Zadari, the teenager attending Oxford University, "I am not a born leader."

Party leaders vehemently denied the statements made on the falsified page, and Facebook terminated the account immediately, noting fake profiles violated its terms of use.

It takes a mere scan of news headlines during the past couple of years to reveal that fabricating a social networking page isn't new. But what's significant about the Bhutto case is that the media outlets' decision to use the information suggests it might have looked semi-believable rather than overtly satirical. Social media experts say, however, the media outlets should have done more to verify its accuracy.

"The media has a lot responsibility here. But if someone wants to do this, and is good at it, it is hard to differentiate [legitimate from fake]," says Fred Stutzman, a social networking researcher at the University of North Carolina's School of Information and Library Science.

Stutzman has created a free service, claimID, that allows users to keep a "link résumé" of all the sites they use and maintain. If a user found a friend's MySpace page, for instance, he could check the link with his friend's link résumé to ensure it's real.

Consider these examples CIO.com culled from news sources, and it's easy to see why people might want such a service:

Oct. 16, 2006: The Boston Globe reported around the time of the 2006 congressional elections that fraudulent MySpace pages had turned up in massive droves. As an example, Sen. Edward M. Kennedy of Massachusetts had a fake page that referenced "past tales of womanizing and drinking," while another fake page for President George W. Bush listed Osama bin Laden on his "friend" list.

Sept. 25, 2006: USA Today reported fake webpages of CEOs and other prominent celebrities had begun to run rampant across MySpace. "The social-networking site is filled with dozens of user pages that purport to be profile pages created by business luminaries Bill Gates, Warren Buffett, Steve Jobs, Martha Stewart and Donald Trump. Many of the phony pages appear legitimate: They have flattering photos and list seemingly correct personal details, such as income, astrology signs and marital status. But bits of misinformation—and even malicious tidbits—are often tucked in."

Aug. 28, 2006: The Capital of Annapolis, Md., reported that a Woody Allen impostor "created a fake profile a few months ago to impress a woman he had a crush on. He did his due diligence on fan websites—and other fake Woody Allen MySpace pages. He lifted a black-and-white headshot of the actor from Google. On the profile page, he described his fake Woody as having 'a passion for complaining' and looking to meet 'anyone with some nice personality. Maybe a nice Jewish girl.'"

Stutzman says social networks like Facebook and MySpace, which rely on advertisements to generate revenue, don't want to make it hard for people to start pages. As such, there's very little done to prevent fraudulent pages from getting started. "I don't think they make an effort to prevent it," he says. "They deal with it reactively instead."

A Facebook spokeswoman contacted by CIO.com said in a statement that the company had disabled two profiles purporting to be Bilawal Bhutto after an investigation found they were not authentic and violated the site's terms of use. But the statement seemed to reaffirm claims by critics that social networks start a profile first and ask questions later. "Facebook examines a range of criteria to determine whether a profile is authentic, including reports from users, profile content, the e-mail associated with an account, length of time the account has been open and network affiliations," the spokeswoman said.

MySpace has been noted as being proactive about this problem. In the past, it has cracked down on potential sex offenders and has provided politicians, for instance, with contact information should sham profiles be found online. The News Corp.-owned company, however, declined to comment on its competitor's recent gaffe.

Editorial Assistant Jarina D'Auria contributed to this article.

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