3 ways Facebook could fight spam

Threats & Hacks

Once upon a time, Spam was a salty lunch meat. Then it became unwanted email. Then spam became anything on a webpage that was self-serving, repetitive or annoying. And now Facebook has taken spam—like everything else on the Internet—and made it way easier to share with your friends.

The excitement and connectivity that lured 550 million people to the largest social network ever created is now being used to spread an incessant torrent of spam. Most of this junk is so obvious as to be harmless. But the reason that it exists is that it works—F-Secure Labs is finding that Facebook spam seems to be more effective than email spam, with conversion rates as high as 47%. This has led some to predict that Facebook spam may soon rival its email equivalent. And one bad click can always lead to a scam that wastes your precious time, money and brainpower.

How much spam is out there? If you search enough terms that spammers are fond of, Facebook may recommend that you become friends with a spam profile.

Keeping tabs on 550 million users can’t be easy. But it’s the kind of challenge every Internet site might like to have. And minimizing spam is also a key to making Facebook a safer place.

Facebook has shown a willingness to respond with criticism by offering some improvements to its privacy controls. Recently, it announced a new campaign against “abusive trolling”. And just yesterday, Facebook announced that it had joined the board of the anti-spam group MAAWG. It’s a good sign that changes are coming.

But while we are waiting, here are three humble suggestions to help Facebook fight spam.

1. Imitate Twitter
According to Twitter, spam on its site once made up as much as 11% of all tweets. That number is now hovering around 1 to 2%—based on Twitter’s reporting.

How has Twitter done this? It appears that its tech team looks a few key behaviors that indicate a tendency to spam. These behaviors include “follower churn”, which is quickly following and unfollowing other accounts, and repetitive posts and links. It’s relatively easy to have your account suspended by Twitter, especially if you’re successful at spamming. Facebook could easily track links that are being repetitively linked and block the links and/or suspend the users.

Twitter also has a “report for spam” link on every profile. Facebook doesn’t have such an option. You can “Report/Block this Person” but you can’t identify “Spam” as the reason for reporting the profile. The closest option is “Fake Profile” but as Sean Sullivan in the F-Secure Labs points out, that’s probably there to stop people from being Homer Simpson. And you can see how well that works.

It would be nice if Facebook had a “report for spam” link on every profile. But you can understand why it would not want to do this. If  just 0.5% of profiles were identified as spam, that would mean 2,250,000 profiles would need to be analyzed, though you can quickly get a sense of what a spam profile usually looks like. It seems that Twitter has come up with a system that bubbles up the most egregious spammers in a way that Facebook hasn’t.

Something else Twitter has done was to make the fight against spam public with its @spam account. Facebook has a page for Security and a Safety center where it shares tactics to help users protect their PCs and themselves. A Facebook Spam page would be a much-needed hub for spam fighters to gather and summon inspiration.

2. Help CSI: Miami clean up that wall!
Facebook pages create a new gray area for brands. The page definitely represents the brand, but it has to exist within Facebook’s framework.

So here’s the problem. You’re CSI: Miami, one of the most popular television shows in the United States. You have well over 3,100,000 “likes” and you want them all to connect or aggregate or evangelize or do whatever you want your fans to do. But the problem is that generally your wall is filled with spam for bargain sites or sites that promise that you can see who views your profile—which must be every Facebook user’s dream since it’s an incredibly common lure for spam and scams.

So who’s responsible for all the spam? CSI: Miami or Facebook.

Do we really expect CSI: Miami to hire a full time staff to edit posts and piss off its real fans by mistakenly deleting a real comment now and then? Do we want to rely on Facebook to deal promptly with the thousands of posts that must get reported every day? Or do we want to give up and say, spam is going to happen so let it happen.

Another option is to not let people post to the page’s wall. The community can still comment on your posts, but there spam will seem even more obvious and will be reported even more quickly. You’re getting the community building you wanted without diminishing your brand with wanton spamming.

3. Use photo recognition to fight photo spam
Recently Wired.com’s Epicenter blog asked, “Why Are There So Many Porn Ads on Britney Spears Facebook Page?” It seems that Ms. Spears’ page’s photo gallery was filled with lots of photos with captions that led to porn or escort sites. Many of the photos Wired found weren’t just duplicated in the gallery—they’re starting to appear again and again all over Facebook.

By forming a partnership with a photo recognition site like Tin Eye, Facebook could identify the images that are being used and reused to spam for sites that are not safe for kids and definitely not safe at work. The goal would not be to eliminate the images, but the spammers themselves.

Sadly, your email, the Internet as a whole and Facebook be completely spam free any time soon. But there is a lot more that can be done to to sift out digital pollution. Just ask Twitter.

What do you think? What else should be done?

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