According to a report in Dawn, the Pakistan Telecommunication Authority (PTA) has asked Facebook to link the phone numbers of its users to their Facebook accounts. The move is apparently an attempt to reduce the number of fake accounts on Facebook. The telephone numbers are verified through a biometric identification system in Pakistan, and according to the authorities in Pakistan, the verification of Facebook accounts with mobile numbers will tackle the problem with fake accounts.
Facebook has indicated that it will continue to support such requests. While fake accounts are usually up to no good, the reason why Pakistan is coming down hard on them is a complex issue, which we will be coming back to later in the article. For now, we will focus on the various ways Facebook has used to identify fake accounts.
Linking of phone numbers to Facebook profiles was a move taken by Facebook back in 2012. The effort was to allow for easier recovery of accounts in case the password is forgotten, provide an additional method of authentication, and allowing users to stay in control of their accounts. Facebook also identifies fake accounts by scanning behavior patterns. This can be as simple as an excessive spread of spam, an activity that genuine users are less likely to indulge in. The tactic allowed Facebook to remove over 30,000 accounts in France alone.
Torrents of messages and repeated posts are both red flags. Facebook is taking the steps to bring down fake accounts to reduce the amount of misinformation circulating on the platform. Facebook tweaked its formula for tracking fake accounts by checking how large the circle of friends of a user were, and focusing on those with smaller circles even though their reach might not have been considered to be wide enough to warrant action.
The measures were taken in response to mounting pressure from Europe, after multiple governments threatened lawsuits and legal action against extremist propaganda and other content posted on the platform, that were in violation of the local laws. Facebook has also started using automated techniques to track fake accounts. One of the approaches does not even involve scanning the contents of the posts themselves, but the frequency of the posting activity. The improved detection algorithms and automation were supported with more features for users to report content and users themselves.
Any user who comes across a fake account can report the profile directly from the profile picture itself. This method of reporting a fake profile to Facebook is particularly useful for those who have been impersonated on the platform. If users are unable to find the particular profile picture, or cannot report the user for some reason, a fake profile can also be reported by filling out a form. The reporting function works for even the users or organisations who do not have a Facebook presence of their own.
There are even third party services that help identify fake profiles. FakeOff is an application by an Israel based startup that scans the activity of all your friends and tags the suspected fake profiles. These profiles can then be reported to Facebook. The application scans up to a year of the Facebook activity of the suspected profile, and gives a credibility score from one to ten. About a quarter of the investigations conducted through the FakeOff application has turned out to be fake profiles.
Circling back to the demand in Pakistan, the comments beneath the Dawn article are polarised into two camps. There are those who support the initiative, and claim that the move will curb crime. The other type of comments are on how the move will restrict free speech, and may even lead to the deaths of Facebook users. This is because the PTA has asked Facebook to link to mobile numbers specifically to track down "blasphemous content" which is illegal in Pakistan. This revealing report by the BBC explains what it is like to be an atheist in Pakistan.
In March 2017, Pakistan threatened Facebook and other social networks with unspecified strict action if concrete steps were not taken to tackle the problem of blasphemous content on their platforms. Facebook is the most used social network in Pakistan, and the company agreed to send a delegation to Pakistan to discuss the issue. Facebook had then indicated that it will support any steps to ensure that the local laws of any country will not be violated.
The concerns of Facebook cooperation with Pakistan authorities possibly leading to the death of users is not unwarranted. In June 2017, Taimoor Raza a 30 year old from the Punjab province of Pakistan was sentenced to death for committing blasphemy on Facebook. The young man apparently indulged in a debate on Islam with a counter terrorism agent. He was one among fifteen arrested for blasphemy in Pakistan in 2016. The government in Pakistan has also circulated messages encouraging people to report users who circulate blasphemous content. Human rights organisations have expressed concerns on the stringent laws on blasphemy in Pakistan.
In 7 July, Facebook officials met with Pakistan’s interior minister to discuss the removal or blocking of blasphemous content on the platform. A report by Dawn in May indicated that more than forty banned outfits in Pakistan were operating on Facebook, and openly spreading sectarian and extremist ideology. Officially, the crackdown on social media was to remove the blasphemous content and the extremist content, but activists have said that the government is also coming down hard on writers and bloggers who criticize the government or the military.