When is a friend a friend? On Facebook, it can be hard to tell.
Executives from the social-media giant will soon testify before congressional intelligence committees about Russian-backed ads that ran on the platform during last year’s U.S. presidential election. As part of that operation, Russian agents apparently created hundreds of accounts posing as Americans or American groups. Hackers and scam artists also use fake accounts on Facebook, as do marketers who simply hope to sell pet toys or lipstick without having to pay for ads.
Impostors exploit Twitter, YouTube and LinkedIn in similar ways. But Facebook is the world’s biggest and richest social-media platform, so it seems likely to bear the brunt of scrutiny as members of Congress and government regulators consider new rules to govern ads and perhaps posted content that appear on social-media sites.
It’s a pivotal moment for Facebook and other social-media sites, as Alexis Christoforous and I discuss in the podcast above (which listeners can download from Apple, Google Play or Stitcher). Yahoo Finance, for instance, recently probed the prevalence of fake accounts on Facebook and found that just about anybody can buy working, impostor accounts on the site for a few bucks and use them for any purpose he or she wants. In a separate effort, we also found fake news in many corners of Facebook , sometimes in groups that had appropriated brand names (such as “Breitbart”), without permission of the brand’s owner.
Facebook seems to go after fakers more aggressively than other social-media sites, as we discuss in the podcast. But it also faces a dilemma that could affect the bottom line: Being too strict about what users can do on the platform could interfere with legitimate social activity, constrain growth and hurt profitability. The trick for Facebook is finding the right balance between policing the site and leaving users free to do what they want. That balance, at the moment, has been thrown out of whack.
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Rick Newman is the author of four books, including Rebounders: How Winners Pivot from Setback to Success . Follow him on Twitter: @rickjnewman