Fake accounts surge on Facebook as schools targetted

MANILA (INQUIRER/ANN) — Thousands of fake accounts that bore the names of University of the Philippines (UP) students, faculty and alumni were created over the weekend on Facebook, reigniting widespread fears over disinformation and privacy that have plagued the social media giant for years.

Students of De La Salle University (DLSU) in Manila and in Cavite province, as well as those of UP Cebu, University of San Carlos and San Jose Recoletos in Cebu City were also affected.

The UP System said its data protection officer had reached out to the National Privacy Commission (NPC) for help in reporting the dummy accounts, which proliferated mere days after the UP community turned out en masse to protest the proposed antiterrorism law.

“We express our utmost alarm since these accounts are suspected to cause harm or spread false information,” the UP Office of the Student Regent (OSR) said in a statement. “It would be best if we all stay informed and vigilant.”

In a statement sent to the Inquirer, Facebook said it was looking into the surge in dummy accounts.

File photo shows the Facebook app icon on a smartphone. PHOTO: AFP

“We understand the concerns raised by our community in the Philippines,” the social media giant said. “We’re investigating reports of suspicious activity on our platform and taking action on any accounts that we find to be in violation of our policies.”

“(W)here they fail our authenticity checks, the accounts will be removed,” Facebook said.

The top four universities in Metro Manila all released statements on Sunday decrying the surge in dummy accounts among members of their communities.

The University Data Protection Office at Ateneo de Manila University said it was coordinating with data protection units at other educational institutions, the National Privacy Commission and Facebook to “pursue any or all necessary interventions.”

The University of Santo Tomas urged caution with “suspicious accounts.”

De La Salle University called on students, alumni and officials to be vigilant.

“Postings from these accounts are unauthorised and do not reflect the views and position of the institution,” it said.

News of the dummy accounts first emerged on Saturday night. By Sunday morning, the site was flooded with pleas for help as more users fell victim.

Common to the duplicates were the absence of a profile photo or any recent posts, suggesting they had been newly created and likely in bulk. Several users reported finding not just one but several accounts using their names.

The UP OSR said it was first notified about the issue by UP Cebu, where students peacefully protesting the passage of the antiterrorism bill were arrested on Friday on its campus.

The school’s official student publication Tug-ani said it identified dozens of empty duplicate accounts.

“Victims speculate that this might involve identity theft or targetted attacks against UP students,” Tug-ani said. It later added that even non-UP students in Cebu found dummies using their name.

In the week leading up to the protests on Friday, hundreds of thousands of Filipinos signed online petitions that called for the junking of House Bill No 6875, or the terrorism bill, warning that free speech would be imperiled. The full name of signatories could be viewed by the public.

Two of those arrested—Bern Cañedo and Nar Porlas—were found to have at least 30 duplicate accounts on Facebook, sowing fear that this might involve identity theft or targetted attacks against UP Cebu students.

UP Cebu Chancellor Liza Corro said she, too, discovered a fake Facebook account claiming to be her. It had no posts except for pictures of just two of her friends and one picture of herself taken a long time ago.

Corro said she reported it right away to Facebook as a fake account and was immediately deleted. But soon thereafter, not even a minute had passed, another fake Facebook account under her name was created.

“It still had no profile picture of myself but had a picture of another different friend of mine. However, this time, my birth date can be publicly seen,” she said.

Again, Corro reported it right away to Facebook as a fake account that again was also immediately pulled down. “And the next thing I saw, another account was created still with my name, but a profile picture of a different woman was placed.”

The NPC said this was the first time it had received a surge of “impostor” accounts on Facebook.

Privacy Commissioner Raymund Liboro said on Sunday that the agency used to get reports about copycat accounts one by one, but not in this scale.

In previous cases, a copycat account would usually be seen as an unauthorised processing of personal data, which would be punishable under the Data Privacy Act. He said it was too early to say what violations were made in the current case.

Liboro said the reports came from members of academic communities such as UP and DLSU. The reports, according to him, were separate from the breach that San Beda University recently reported.

Liboro said the NPC had immediately brought this to the attention of Facebook.

Justice Secretary Menardo Guevarra said he would direct the justice department’s Office of Cybercrime to coordinate with the National Bureau of Investigation and the Philippine National Police counterpart units to promptly investigate the proliferation of fake Facebook accounts.

“This gives me cause for worry. We don’t need false information at a time when we’re dealing with a serious public health crisis,” he said on Sunday.

EngageMedia, a non-profit organisation that advocates digital rights, pointed the Inquirer to studies that had shown how “keyboard armies” pushed the present administration’s agenda.

“In this instance, the fake accounts were used for political aims, and this recent use of fake accounts—by targetting those who criticise the President’s priority bill — seem to be no different,” said Advocacy and Communications Senior Manager Red Tani.

“As with the previous use of fake accounts, there’s no way to be sure who is really behind this or what their motivations are,” he added.

“But the effects are clear — advocates and activists, even citizens who don’t identify as such, will now think twice before they publicly criticise the administration’s actions.”