When Hilary Mason, a data scientist and entrepreneur, discovered that dozens of automated “bot” accounts had sprung up to impersonate her on Twitter, she immediately set out to stop them.
She filed dozens of complaints with Twitter, repeatedly submitting copies of her driver’s license to prove her identity. She reached out to friends who worked at the company. But days later, many of the fake accounts remained active, even though virtually identical ones had been shut down.
Millions of accounts impersonating real people roam social media platforms, promoting commercial products and celebrities, attacking political candidates and sowing discord. They spread fake images and misinformation about the school shooting last week in Parkland, Fla. They were central to Russian attempts to sway the 2016 presidential election in favor of Donald J. Trump, according to a federal grand jury indictment on Friday. And American intelligence officials believe they will figure in Russian efforts to shape the coming midterm elections, too.
Yet social media companies often fail to vigorously enforce their own policies against impersonation, an examination by The New York Times found, enabling the spread of fake news and propaganda — and allowing a global black market in social identities to thrive on their platforms.
Facebook and Twitter require proof of identity to shut down an impostor account but none to set one up. And even as social media accounts evolve into something akin to virtual passports — for shopping, political activity and even gaining access to government services — technology companies have devised their own rules and standards, with little oversight or regulation from Washington.
“These companies have, in a lot of ways, assigned themselves to be validators of your identity,” said Jillian York, an official at the Electronic Frontier Foundation, which advocates digital privacy protections. “But the vast majority of users have no access to any due process, no access to any kind of customer service — and no means of appealing any kind of decision.”
Some impostor accounts are set up as pranks. Millions of them are controlled by private companies that sell fake followers and other forms of social media engagement to celebrities, professional athletes and authors. Many others are deployed in systematic information warfare campaigns waged by governments.
In congressional hearings last week, some lawmakers questioned whether social media businesses were doing enough.
“I think the companies themselves were slow to recognize this threat,” said Senator Mark Warner, Democrat of Virginia. “I think they’ve still got more work to do.”
Leaders of some social media companies have said they are trying hard to grapple with impersonation. In an earnings call this month, Jack Dorsey, Twitter’s chief executive, said the company was expanding what it calls “information quality” efforts, including ways of elevating credible and authentic content on the platform.
Facebook’s chief executive, Mark Zuckerberg, wrote in a Facebook post in January that the company had nearly doubled the number of workers who review content for fake news and abuse, including impersonation.
Facebook’s terms of service prohibit impersonation and require that account holders generally use their real names. Twitter, however, allows parody accounts and pseudonyms, and only forbids impersonation when that account portrays another user “in a misleading or deceptive manner.” The company does not proactively review accounts for impersonation.
That policy can leave real users mystified or enraged. In December, Firoozeh Dumas, an Iranian-American memoirist who lives in Germany, repeatedly…
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