Discuss as:

On social media, fakery muddies political discussion

Twitter.com

A selection of Tweets from Dawn Berkley's Twitter account/

Dawn Berkley appears to be a passionate, young female Mitt Romney supporter from La Crosse, Wis., a key battleground state.  Her Twitter and Facebook pages are jammed with anti-Democratic Party talking points like this: "The Democrats have a good cheat machine in Minnesota. Look how Al Franken "won." Watch the scum like a hawk," posted Sunday on her Facebook page.  Or this recent Tweet: "Obama campaign to girls: Have sex with vote for O," with a link to the conservative website  Brietbart.com. She's also left a smattering of pro-Romney comments at news websites and blogs, like this one on a Forbes.com story about Clint Eastwood's Republican National Convention speech: "I thought it was relevant and VERY funny! I’m 22 and never watched an Eastwood movie till after I saw him do this skit. The man is remarkable."

Berkley's social media presence is also remarkable.  Outside the political commentary, there is scant activity on her accounts.  And she has a remarkably thin photo collection for a 22-year-old -- in fact, there's only one picture available to her Facebook friends. Her mandatory profile photo shows an attractive young woman posing with an over-the-shoulder, come hither look. Perhaps that's why the very same photo is used in many places across the Internet, including on various Asian massage websites. The rightful owner of the face, however, appears to be Korean pop singer Lee Hyori, who uses the image as her promotional headshot.


So who is Dawn Berkley, if not a dead ringer for a Korean pop singer? NBC News managed to get whoever controls her Facebook account to accept a friend request, but that person did not respond to follow-up emails, so there is no way to know. It's possible she is a 22-year-old Romney supporter who simply doesn't want to use her own face online for privacy reasons. It's also possible that everything about Dawn Berkley's account is, like the photo, fake.

If so, it would hardly be the only phony social media account used in this election season.  Accusations have been raised against both parties that Twitter and Facebook follower numbers have been inflated by millions through various manipulations. In the first presidential election where social media is a full-fledged election battleground, the rules of engagement are anything but clear. That's led to some unsavory conduct.

A social media management company named Status People caused a stir in August when it said it estimated that a majority of President Barack Obama's followers were either "inactive," meaning they never post Tweets, or fake.  (It's important to note the firm uses a very rudimentary sampling method). Questions dogged the Romney campaign about its Twitter ranks in July, when Romney's followers jumped 17 percent in a single day.  That news sent opponents into a frenzy, scanning the list for fakes, which weren't hard to spot: One skeptic found six Romney followers using the same photo.

There have even been claims by hundreds of Obama supporters that they were somehow tricked or hacked into "liking" Mitt Romney on Facebook, as evidenced by the "Hacked by Mitt Romney" page.  Facebook says there's a much simpler explanation than hacking; it's fairly easy to accidentally like a page on Facebook, making that the likely culprit.

Both campaigns deny buying followers or engaging in any wrongdoing, such as what might be called "political sockpuppetry" – creation of fake identities to espouse the candidate’s views. It's entirely possible that anyone engaging in fake Tweets or comments is doing so on their own, without instruction from a campaign.  It's also debatable that there's anything wrong with posting political comments under an assumed identity online. Pseudonyms have long played an important role in American politics: Pamphleteers in Colonial times often used fake names (PDF).

In the commercial world, however, such fakery is illegal, according to the Federal Trade Commission. Faux endorsements of companies or services by invented characters, or by people who receive compensation but don't disclose it, violate the Federal Trade Commission Act. Such actions constitute false advertising, the agency says. Of course, that hasn't stopped the practice of fly-by-night firms creating fake blogs with commenters discussing how much they like a certain magic herbal cure or that problem-solving gadget. It's so widespread that the online advertising community has created a name for it: "The Fakosphere." Getting into the fakosphere is easy, and cheap. There are numerous places online offering 1,000 Twitter followers for as little as $5.

The fundamental problem is simple: The Internet is built to enable anonymity, no it’s not possible under normal circumstances to know if someone online is fake or real. That’s a perfect playground for those who would engage in sockpuppetry.  Fortunately most Internet users are aware of the anonymity issue.  Still, even professionals can be fooled. When a fake Twitter account created in the name of actor Jake Gyllenhaal tweeted, “As a Democrat, I'll say it now, I endorse Mitt Romney," the post was convincing enough that The Drudge Report briefly reported it as fact. 

For their part, Twitter and Facebook say their terms of service prohibit all such behavior, but it's obviously a challenge to monitor 1 billion accounts for signs of fakery. Still, the companies try.

Facebook spokesman Andrew Noyes said the company doesn’t have statistics or anything specific to say about the "political space." But he pointed toward a recent company blog post that described "site integrity systems, including recent increases to our automated efforts to remove Likes on Pages that may have been gained by means that violate our terms."

And Zach Green, who runs left-leaning Twitter political consulting firm 140Elect.com, said that concerns about fake online political activity are overblown.

“We haven’t seen any large astroturfing events,” he said, referring to widespread campaigns organized by masked sponsors and designed to push a hidden agenda. People have been waiting for one the whole election cycle, but it never really materialized.”

Internet users are particularly unforgiving when a fake account is exposed in wrongdoing, as occurred during Hurricane Sandy, when a Republican campaign worker in New York was caught Tweeting false information from an anonymous account during the height of the storm. The incident proves that while it’s easy to spread misinformation online, the Internet is has a pretty good self-correction mechanism. That’s why he thinks both campaigns have stayed away from any widespread fakery, Green said.

“There is such a small benefit to the campaign, and there would be such a large backlash,” he said.

 

* Follow Bob Sullivan on Facebook.

* Follow Bob Sullivan on Twitter