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Facebook and Twitter purge 700m accounts but fakery persists

Politicians see follower counts shrink overnight

Clockwise from top left: Indian Prime Minister Narendra Modi, Malaysian Prime Minister Mahathir Mohamad, U.S. President Donald Trump and Japanese Prime Minister Shinzo Abe.   © Reuters

TOKYO -- Twitter and Facebook say they have shut down roughly 700 million phony accounts so far this year in their campaign to contain the spread of false information. Questions remain, however, concerning the efficacy of the purge.

World leaders lost hundreds of thousands of followers when Twitter deleted accounts en masse on July 13, a Nikkei study shows. U.S. President Donald Trump shed 315,000, or 0.59% of his total.

Losses varied among Asian leaders. Indian Prime Minister Narendra Modi's follower count shrank by 270,000, or 0.62%. Turkish President Recep Tayyip Erdogan shed 207,000, or 1.57%. Followers of Indonesian President Joko Widodo decreased by 95,000, or 0.93%.

The embarrassment was somewhat smaller for Japanese Prime Minister Shinzo Abe and Malaysian Prime Minister Mahathir Mohamad, who lost only thousands each.

"There are various patterns such as a large number of spam accounts following someone, or someone purchasing followers," said Hiroshi Yamaguchi, a Komazawa University professor who is an expert on online speech.

Media outlets increasingly cite a politician's or party's follower count as a measure of influence. Even if politicians do not personally spend money to pad follower counts, campaign staffers or other loyalists could, according to Yamaguchi.

Nor is the problem limited to politics. Businesses have access to an expanding roster of vendors that sell "followers" who post favorable comments.

Twitter went ahead with July's cull as part of its ongoing efforts to "encourage healthy conversation." It and other social media mainstays have been under fire since the 2016 U.S. presidential election for their role in spreading fake news.

Twitter has apparently deleted more than 100 million accounts since May. Facebook said that month that it had disabled 583 million fake accounts. This would total around a quarter of their more than 2.5 billion monthly active users.

Still, shady actors run rampant.

Take the "Amazon review groups" hosted on Facebook. One offers complimentary items to prospective posters of positive reviews. A reviewer buys an item and is reimbursed for it. There are also promises of added commissions amounting to the equivalent of a few dollars or more. Many posters say they live in China.

These review mills employ a variety of tricks to avoid getting caught. Posters for hire might be told to limit reviews to just two a day and not give every product five stars, for example. banned incentivized reviews in 2016 and has gone so far as to sue violators. But the problem is hardly solved.

"Even if short-term profits shrink, a business model that gains trust through one's own efforts is key," Sophia University professor Yoshihiro Oto said. "Without that, you cannot continue to offer a service for long."

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