The social network also announced that it disrupted a major spam operation it had been fighting for half a year. According to Facebook, the operation was “made up of inauthentic likes and comments that appear to come from accounts located in Bangladesh, Indonesia, Saudi Arabia, and a number of other countries. We found that most of this activity was generated not through traditional mass account creation methods, but by more sophisticated means that try to mask the fact that the accounts are part of the same coordinated operation. They used tricks to avoid detection, including redirecting their traffic through ‘proxies that disguised their location.”
Facebook believes that the accounts created by the operation, which were still largely dormant, would later have been used to send mass spam to real users.
Shabnam Shaik, a member of Facebook’s Protect and Care team, explained that “Our systems were able to identify a large portion of this illegitimate activity – and to remove a substantial number of inauthentic likes.” He added, “As we remove the rest of the inauthentic likes, we expect that 99% of impacted Pages with more than 10,000 likes will see a drop of less than 3%. None of these likes were the result of paid ads from the affected Pages.”
But there apparently was an exception to that: USA Today.
According to social media monitoring platform CrowdTangle, USA Today had more than 15m Likes on Facebook as of last Thursday. By Friday, that figure had dropped to around 10m, and today, USA Today’s Facebook Page has well under 10m Likes.
As The Daily Caller’s Alex Pfeiffer observed, based on CrowdTangle’s data, “no other major publisher appears to have experienced the same drop.”
While one might jump to the conclusion that the drop indicates USA Today was somehow involved in an effort to artificially inflate its Like count, that isn’t the case. In fact, USA Today parent Gannett reported suspicious account activity to Facebook, which helped spark the social network’s crackdown.
According to Maribel Wadsworth, Gannett’s chief transformation officer, “USA TODAY NETWORK takes great pride in our journalism and the trust our consumers and advertising partners have in us. Since we first brought this issue to Facebook’s attention, we have been in close communication with them and look forward to a swift solution that prevents this illegitimate activity from happening on our Facebook page in the future.”
There is irony in this story, however. In January, Jamie Motttram, then USA Today’s social chief, bragged on Twitter about the growth of the publisher’s Facebook Page, noting that it was the “fastest-growing FB page in news.”
— Jamie Mottram (@JamieMottram) January 27, 2017
The precipitous drop in Likes on the USA Today Facebook Page following Facebook’s crackdown suggests that much of that growth was the result of fake account activity, which offers two points publishers active on Facebook might want to mull:
1) Clearly, publishers have a limited ability to determine how much of the activity on their Facebook Pages is legitimate, and without Facebook’s help, there’s little they can do to crack down on bad behavior.
2) While Facebook noted that the “illegitimate activity” was in no way related to paid ads, one has to wonder whether investment decisions have been influenced by such activity. After all, publishers are almost certainly influenced by metrics like Likes when determining how much to spend on the social network, directly and indirectly. To the extent that those metrics are inflated, publishers risk increasing spend when it isn’t necessarily justified and/or seeing some of their spend go to waste.