The fight against fake accounts: five lessons learned


The sequence of events that started with Propastop’s uncovering fake news has led many of the #ESTexitEU topic related fake accounts to be now be closed. How did we arrive at this result and what can we learn about the incident for the future?

Closing accounts works!

Knowing that this time, Propastop’s uncovering of the situation and the Postimees’ articles that were pushing it had serious consequences gave a real feeling of satisfaction. As of Jan. 10, Facebook closed all of the initial fake accounts of Estoners’ original administrators.

More importantly, deletion of accounts has also led to the loss of all of the content of the fake administrators from the group and group members’ flow of news. No longer can be seen disruptive memes, propaganda news, topic references etc. The spread of false information has been effectively limited. The Group has been left to moderate two newly created administrative accounts  called Desiree Chandler and  Caroline Armstrong (UPDATE: accounts closed 14.01.2019), both with fake account traits. They would be able to upload the erased content again, but it would require thorough hands on work.

Proof is important

To fight fake accounts, it is not enough simply to argue that somebody seems suspicious. Feelings and suspicions are not worth a lot, proof is important. The best way to work is by showing a picture search that shows the origin of the photo material from other internet sites. It helps to investigate the name, for example, proving that a person of that name never attended a school that they claim to have studied at. All accounts under investigation should be saved as screenshots or web archives; otherwise, there will be a shortage of evidence later if the fake accounts change their settings. Of course, the other side also adapts. In order to make it more difficult to trace their footprints, the fake accounts no longer upload pictures, do not publish background information or make friends. This secrecy, of course suggests that the account is suspicious.

Everyone can help

Very wide ranges of people have contributed to tracing fake news and fake accounts. Many common, some (social media) users have reported suspicious accounts. The topic is discussed in blogs and forums. Opinion leaders, such as President Toomas Hendrik Ilves on Twitter, have disseminated information. The professional press, especially Holger Roonemaa and Postimees, has contributed a lot.

Propastop considers the contributions of everyone to be the reason why the topic became more widespread than any previous case of influence. However, media outlets could have conducted more attention: besides Õhtuleht’s one story and Vikerraadio’s single broadcast, these two major media houses have not considered it necessary to let their readers know about the network of fake accounts.

State intervention becomes decisive

As reported in the media by Siim Kumpas from the government’s communications office, who demanded investigation of Facebook fake accounts. It is probably in their interest that the accounts have actually closed down, because the everyday user often remains unheard due to the influence of some giants. For example, a user named Oksana Söderholm tried tom tell Facebook all through autumn that an administrator of the same name for Estoners is actually a fake account. Her protests, however did not lead to a result.

Twitter still requires work

Unlike Facebook, Twitter has not yet closed the fake accounts. Heigo Ponn, Markus Roo and Gennadiy Karpovi fake accounts are still public. Probably the reason for this is Twitter’s liberal user terms; Facebook rules say that creating fake users is against the rules and will lead to accounts being closed, it is not so explicitly spelled on Twitter. On Twitter, the problem with fake accounts is much more than on Facebook. With all three of the above, there is a large network that seems to have been created to amplify hostile propaganda at opportune moments. Fortunately, Twitter is not the most popular some environment in Estonia, this prevents the spread of fake news.

Read more:

Propastop stories on fake accounts connected to fake accounts and their large numbers. Postimees article from Estoners administrators and its follow-up story.

Pictures: screenshots from some accounts.