A Field Guide for Spotting Social Fakery

I have written before about the art of spotting fake online accounts. Many of the tactics the tricksters use remain the same, but get a fresh coat of paint to maintain the illusion of appearances. For the most part, you really don’t even have to know what the intent of the faux-human might be. Just know that you don’t want any part of them.

Your Instant Twin

One of the rampant operations now is impersonating a user. Find an account:

  • that doesn’t post very often
  • that has a few pictures you can scrape
  • that has a public friends list

From that, you create the Doppelgänger page, and start sending Friend requests to those the real individual is connected with. Most of those people will assume that you are starting a new profile, or may have even forgotten that you were already Friends.

This isn’t a “hack” per se, and does not require a complete change-every-password meltdown. This is the equivalent of someone sending letters with your return address on the envelope. You can’t stop them, but they don’t have access to your bank records.

Sometimes, however, the appearance of human-ish behavior may get us to lower our guard just long enough for a malware link to slip through.

Dumping on Groups

There is a wave of this on Facebook right now, and those behind the scheme are using a nice bit of human psychology and engineering: when you click on the link, it propagates itself by “spamming” the message in a Group you are a member of — not directly on your timeline.

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Most any groups tend to have fewer members, which means you probably won’t have someone immediately bringing it to your attention, letting the malware message sit and marinate. Also, since many groups are closed and even secret, there is a more intimate feel of trust. So curiosity temporarily wins and we click…

There is something more reassuring about not being a lone voice, and specific cues that would ordinarily let us sort the real people from the virtual ones. And that’s where the scammers are getting a little more crafty…

Hunting in Packs

Okay, they aren’t really hunting, per se. But they are emulating the actual Social aspects of social media behavior.

Look at this Twitter reply I got the other day:

(I will provide a screenshot as well, in preparation for the eventual deletion of the not-very-real Diane Hart.)

Looking at that embed, even, you can see that someone apparently liked that tweet enough to re-tweet it. There were two of them.

fake 1

However, looking at those accounts, we can see the chinks in the armor. Neither account has a profile picture. Hovering over them gives you some promising stats…

fake 3 fake 2

Plenty of tweets and follower numbers, right?

Well, not exactly. Nearly every one of those tweets for Louis and Edmund are retweets, which are done by automated script. No telling how many “Diane Hart”-like accounts they are propping up.

The Danger in the Link

I can’t tell you where that link goes. I don’t want to click it. But I can tell you where my informed opinion is derived.

The link “she” shares is a custom Bitly link. If you type that directly into your browser, then add a + to the end before you click enter, it will take you to an in-between information page, where you can see the eventual destination. In this instance, we can even get some information about the marketer involved!


So, now we can derive a little more info. The URL is simply the mobile landing page for this promotion. Everything after the question mark is Google Analytics tracking code – and the strange piece up front is just the acronym for The Home Depot Retool Your School.

Is this malware? No, it isn’t. But I am still not going to click it!

And this “Eric Yee,” is that even a real person with a real name? No idea. The Bitly account was created just last November.

Am I to be angry at Home Depot for sleazy marketing? I can’t even be mad at them, because marketing firms are capable of some real shady things to juice the engagement numbers that a client pays for.

Shady? Yes, I stand by “Shady.”

  • Fake account
  • Spams the same message to a big list of Twitter users
  • Uses other fake accounts for social proof

dianeEither way – we are talking about false pretenses to get you to click on something in which you had no interest.

Oh, and “Diane?” Where to start with you, Diane?

What a lovely profile picture. You look great for an Idaho resident who is now 130 years old.

The profile itself has existed solely to promote this specific campaign, on its second year now. (Makes you wonder how many of Twitter’s hundreds of millions of profiles come out of hibernation from a marketer’s toolbox once a year.)

Apparently, she used to have a successful modeling career. Thanks to Tineye, we can see that she was once featured in the collections of both Shutterstock and BigStockPhoto:



If you go back to her humble beginnings, you can find this tweet:

But after that one message in April of 2013, the next did not arrive until February 2015. I am so glad she found her voice…

Your Turn

If you wanted to tell your Aunt how to avoid online trickery, what advice would you add to this post?

Please add it in the comments!

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Objective Reality, RIP

“Who controls the past controls the future; who controls the present controls the past.” – George Orwell

What do we know anymore? And how do we know it?

We live in scary times. Not because of threats at every turn – we exist in the greatest era of human history, with record degrees of ingenuity and comfort and freedom. What makes them downright frightening is the degree to which – in the blink of a cultural eye – we have lost our ability to divine truth from fiction.

What is “on the record” anymore, beyond the ability to be changed? Orwell’s Oceania from 1984 was a totalitarian nightmare, where any and every fact could be erased or retro-fitted into existing dogma at any moment. You simply had to have the access to edit the record. [Read more…]

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Stop failing our kids

Apparently, the number one thing you can do in school is Fail. Not “fail,” as in the lowercase meaning of “missing a standard.” No, I mean “Fail,” as in “make a particular grade that comes with a negative connotation.”

I was talking with my friend K., whose child is close in age to mine but goes to a different local school system. We talked about the ridiculous nature of the modern science fair — and about my belief that they have become ridiculous pageants to appease the parental ego. The percentage of school science projects actually done by the children is beginning to fall even below the percentage of Pinewood Derby race cars that aren’t built by Dad. (If soccer started allowing the parents to do all of the work, the games would be more entertaining, if only for the fistfights.)

Type casting

Anyway, K. and her little R. (age 9) have been struggling all week with an assignment to develop a new book cover for a short story. Instead of just asking for a brief book report, a synopsis, the teacher is asking for a selling point. Show us the blurb that would sell others on wanting to read it.

I actually like that twist on the assignment. You have to read the book, and then figure out how to pitch it. Anyway, the kids were given a template page, and told to ‘neatly print’ their synopsis on the cover.

Yesterday, one of the moms turned in the assignment, and the teacher showed it off as an example of what to do.

It was in PowerPoint.

Now K. is freaking out, because R. has been working on improving his penmanship, and practicing writing his words very carefully. Because, as it turns out, the “printing neatly” part is worth 20 percent of the grade.

Failing to measure

This is where I have a problem with the assignment. As you might know, I am a huge fan of incentives/disincentives. If you reward the proper things, you will get the proper things in the future. If you punish good things, you get less of them.


Clippy is hear too help!

In this instance, you would hope the grade would be based upon what R. learns this year. Just three weeks into school, I don’t believe any teacher has the expectation that his handwriting will have improved. So if R. just has ordinary penmanship for a nine-year-old, he will be penalized. Yet, if R. (and his mother) type and print the entire thing, then by all means award the full 20 points for that part of the assignment! Never mind that when it’s typed, you lose all grasp of who actually did the work. Did R. type it? Did K.? Did R. catch the spelling errors, or did Clippy?

This sends a number of clear messages to students:

  • It doesn’t matter what you learn.
  • It doesn’t matter whether you improve.
  • We are going to base today’s grade on things you did or didn’t learn in previous grades.
  • It doesn’t matter whether you do your own work.

Lord knows we have enough issues with helicopter parents. Teachers, I am looking at you for this one. Stop rewarding the obvious meddling in a child’s education. If a kid is obviously turning in Mommy’s work (or Dad’s,) then call them out on it. Stop celebrating the “genius” of a child who isn’t learning anything!

Encourage the kids who try. Not with bogus participation ribbons, but how about reserving the A grades for kids who do their own work? Stop failing our kids. Not with the assignment of a silly letter – but by giving up on making them do the work themselves.

If you like this rant, share it. And tell me you liked it, so I might be encouraged to write more of them. Because I believe that incentives matter.

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Talking Back to the Fans

This just goes to prove that you never know who is listening in social media these days.

Here’s the thing: Erik never used any special syntax to flag Rodney – and he wasn’t replying to anything in particular that would have gotten Rodney’s attention. Rodney is apparently just checking out who is talking “Dead Milkmen” after all these years, and is engaging them.


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How Podcasting Can Save America

…from the simultaneously mind-numbing and stress-inducing tedium that is our presidential process.

Or maybe it can just save you from the numbing and the stress.

I didn’t watch the GOP debates the other day. Not Trump’s prime-time glory show, nor the “kids’ table” that preceded it. It’s not that I don’t care (and at this point, I don’t, but that’s not it.) It’s that the format is too short, all wrong, and needlessly combative. [Read more…]

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Opining on The Origin of Outrage Culture

My friend Carl Carter posed an interesting notion on Facebook, that I share here:

I’m not a big scripture quoter, but reflecting on our instant collective condemnations of distant people and things we’d never hear of but for Facebook, “Matthew 7:3 comes to mind: Why do you see the speck in your neighbor’s eye, but do not notice the log in your own eye?”

What’ll today’s viral outrage be? A tacky note left on a car? (I suspect half those are faked clickbait anyway.) Yet another police shooting video?

Whatever it takes to escape our own little reality…

That prompted my thought:

escher-crystal-ballWe have always been connected to a smaller sphere of immediate proximity. Now we are connected to the world at large, and we seek some sort of commonality to make the proximity less awkward.

So we share outrageous outrages, that are of little importance to any of our lives, but serve to give us a sense of belonging and communal head-nodding and finger-wagging.

It makes the Big Empty less scary.


There are many other forces at work in determining what we share and why. Have you identified your own triggers? Share in the comments.

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Armadillos, leprosy, and media hype

This is a disturbing headline, but not for the reason you think:

armadillo leprosy headline

If you can’t read it, the text is “Armadillos cause spike in leprosy cases in Florida.”

The confluence of two unusual words (“armadillo” and “leprosy”) makes you sit up and take notice (even if the other noun, “Florida,” somehow makes it seem less unexpected.)

So, just how bad is this leprosy epidemic?

Florida typically sees two to 12 cases of leprosy a year, but so far there have been nine cases in 2015, according to the Florida Department of Health.

Okay, let’s unpack that for a moment.

  • Usual range is between two and 12.
  • We have had nine in the first seven months of the year.
  • TREND!

Even if that extrapolates up to a whopping 17 people, we still don’t know what the mean is, nor what would constitute a standard deviation. Also, we don’t have data on where these are occurring — for instance, if a family of five all touched an armadillo, that would be a single incident with five cases, and not indicative of some zombie-inducing plague of armadillae. [Read more…]

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