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
Party leaders vehemently denied the statements made on the falsified page, and Facebook
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
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
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.