Are Facebook friends for real?

8 Jun 2012

Davey Winder wonders if your Facebook friends are who you think they are

One of the most common criticisms of social media – among those who don’t actually use Facebook or Twitter – is to doubt whether virtual friendships are real.

I’ve been actively involved in online communities for 20 years, as both participant and builder, and I know that online relationships can be just as tangible as those involving physical contact.

There’s no such thing as a “virtual” friend, because it’s the friendship itself, rather than the platform via which it’s conducted, that grants it validity.

But here’s where things start to get fuzzy, because Facebook informs me that I have 287 friends, while on Twitter that balloons to 2,241, if you count followers as friends. I don’t, because people may follow my posts on Twitter without any prompting from me, and without my having to confirm that I know them in any way at all.

There’s no such thing as a “virtual” friend, because it’s the friendship itself, rather than the platform via which it’s conducted, that grants it validity

But what about Facebook? I have confirmed online friendships with almost 300 people, all of whom I’ve either met in person or else know through online activities of one kind or another. I may pass them in the street without realising who they are, but that doesn’t invalidate the online “friendship”, although in many cases perhaps “acquaintance” or “work colleague” would be a truer description.

Exploiting trust

So why have I bothered to bring this up now? Well, because the bad guys are increasingly exploiting the implied trust that a Facebook friendship confers to perpetrate scams, phishing attempts, social-engineering traps, and to distribute malicious links and software. The importance of Facebook security is increasingly moving beyond the domestic and into the commercial arena, as more and more businesses are adopting workplace social media strategies.’s 2012 small-business survey researched 1,300 small businesses in the UK, and found that 91% were using social networks for business, up from only 60% the previous year.

Quite often fake friendship works in exactly the opposite way to what you’d expect. The Facebook account of someone who’s already your friend might get compromised, with bad guys using that account to recommend malicious links or worm information out of you, but that isn’t how all of them operate.

Fake friendships

A recent survey conducted by Barracuda Networks uncovered a more insidious way to exploit Facebook – the fake friendship scam. The survey examined 2,844 Facebook accounts, and discovered that fake ones, established solely for the purpose of ripping you off, have on average six times as many “friends” connected to them as real accounts do! This random sampling of active accounts provided an insight into the way many people choose their virtual friends, and it’s rather alarming.

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