The researchers found YouTube the worst at removing inauthentic accounts and the most expensive to manipulate. The researchers reported 100 accounts used for manipulation in their test to each of the social media companies, and YouTube was the only one that did not suspend any and provided no explanation.
Facebook, the world’s largest social network, was best at blocking the creation of accounts under false pretenses, but it rarely took content down. Instagram, which Facebook owns, was the easiest and cheapest to manipulate.
“Fake engagement tactics remain a challenge facing the entire industry,” Facebook said in a statement. “We’re making massive investments to find and remove fake accounts and engagement every day.”
Samantha Bradshaw, a researcher at the Oxford Internet Institute, a department at Oxford University, said easy social media manipulation could have implications for European elections this year and the 2020 presidential election in the United States.
“Fake engagement — whether generated by automated or real accounts — can skew the perceived popularity of a candidate or issue,” Ms. Bradshaw said. “If these strategies are used to amplify disinformation, conspiracy and intolerance, social media could exacerbate the polarization and distrust that exist within society.”
Ms. Bradshaw, who reviewed the report independently, said the reason accounts might have not been taken down was that “they could belong to real people, where individuals are paid a small amount of money for liking or sharing posts.” This strategy, she pointed out, makes it much harder for the platforms to take action.
Still, she said the companies could do more to track and monitor accounts associated with manipulation services. And the companies could suspend or remove the accounts after several instances of suspicious activity to diminish inauthentic behavior.
“Examining fake engagement is important because accounts don’t have to be fake to pollute the information environment,” Ms. Bradshaw said. “Real people can use real accounts to produce inauthentic behavior that skews online discourse and generates virality.”