Attack of the Clones

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    ‘Hopefully, Facebook acts, and acts fast. This is the kind of behavior that lends to the widely held perception that it is reluctant to uphold the privacy of its users, and is helpless against bad actors who game their platform.’

    UNFORTUNATELY, it wasn’t a screening of the Star Wars movie of the same title. Rather, it was a less entertaining event: Facebook users woke up over the weekend to see their feeds bombarded with posts from their friends and family members, all warning of the same thing. Clone accounts sprouted like poisonous mushrooms, carrying no photos, no friends, no posts – all created, it seems, very recently. Some mirrored the account names of real people to the letter; some had slightly misspelled entries, some had accounts created in their nicknames, or saw accounts that had put their surname as their first, and vice-versa.

    Early indications from enterprising online sleuths are in: it seems that the first wave of clone started duplicating the Facebook profiles of students and faculty of the University of the Philippines Cebu, after a peaceful protest against the passage of the Anti-Terror Bill was broken up by police, who arrested several protesters. The arrests were swiftly denounced by the administration of UP Cebu. On Sunday, the UP administration urged members of the UP community to check Facebook if any duplicate accounts had been made in their name.

    Word didn’t stay within the UP community, and spread like wildfire in the online space.

    It doesn’t take much to understand the alarm that the attack of the clones caused to ordinary folks on Facebook. To some extent, celebrities and public figures are no stranger to this sort of modus, some cooked up with nefarious purposes in mind. Identity theft is a serious matter (apart from being an actual criminal offense), and can cause serious damage to the victim.

    The question is: what is the purpose of these clones? Anyone who has a social media account will be familiar with trolls, or accounts created to sway the opinion of other users, or to bully real users who may have an opposing opinion on a particular issue into silence. I don’t have a definite answer, but I do have a list of questions we should all be asking in connection with these clones.

    Most obvious is, who is behind this? Anyone who wants to open a Facebook account is asked to provide a mobile number, so it is safe to say that the creators of these clone accounts used different mobile numbers to make these accounts. I am curious whether the telcos have seen a surge of new mobile number activations more than usual. This is clearly not the work of one or two people, but required resources and manpower. Who is callous enough to launch an attack on unsuspecting users at a time when everyone is still living under threat of the COVID-19 pandemic?

    Sadly, like many other things, we may never know. Unless Facebook makes public the results of its investigation on this matter. Last I heard, the social media giant is already investigating the incident, following numerous reports from its own users about the existence of the clones. Hopefully, Facebook acts, and acts fast. This is the kind of behavior that lends to the widely held perception that it is reluctant to uphold the privacy of its users, and is helpless against bad actors who game their platform.

    Until then, keep yourselves safe, dear millennials and fillennials. Online, and offline.