I Was a Russian Facebook Troll Named Martha

Who has all those fake Russian Facebook accounts? I think I had one, at least for a couple of days

3 min read

Photo of the real Tekla Perry
The real Tekla Perry.
Photo: Randi Klett

Back in the earliest days of Facebook, before you could attach a second name to your Facebook account or before businesses could set up pages, I created two Facebook accounts. I use my original name professionally and my married name for my personal life, and so it made sense to me that I would have a professional account and a personal account.

But before I really got going with Facebook, I started using Twitter for professional postings, so the Facebook account associated with my work email just gathered digital dust. For years and years.

A couple of weeks ago, however, I started getting notices via email from Facebook pointing out that the account hadn’t been updated in a while. I thought that was odd; why would Facebook suddenly care about this old account? Is it really that desperate for traffic? And I also started getting notices whenever a friend on that account (which at that point was only me, that is, my other account) posted anything new. That was annoying, and given I’d never gotten these notices before, I was pretty sure “updates on your friends” was not something for which I had created an email alert. I tried to log on to my old work-related account to turn the notices off, but the password failed. I wrote that off to bad record keeping on my part and I didn’t have the time to fiddle with it, so I moved on to other things.

Screenshot of the author's alternative facebook profile.My Facebook profile lay dormant, until it was hijacked by an unidentified person, organization, or bot. Then “Tekla Perry” (real photo, at top) became “Martha Negron” (above). Facebook’s algorithms adjusted quickly in suggesting people “Martha” might know.Image: Tekla Perry

Then last week, the notification emails started referring to me as Martha. Huh? And alerted me that I had changed my profile picture. And then came more, noting that I’d added two friends—one in the Ukraine, one in Tanzania—and suggesting a long list of possible friends, most of whom were tagged in Cyrillic. It looked like my dusty little Facebook account was turning into a Russian troll. (Ironically, my actual first name is of Russian origin—but I guess you can’t have a Russian troll with a Russian name.)

I dug through all of Facebook’s reporting mechanisms—there wasn’t any option for “I’m a troll.” I couldn’t report my own profile for abuse, only report someone else’s profile, or posts someone else had made. The online menus sent me through circle after circle.

Finally, I deactivated my account, giving “privacy concerns” as a reason. But I wonder how many people out there have dusty accounts—particularly people who once upon a time set up a Facebook account (or perhaps their children set it up for them)—but didn’t select activity alerts. Without those coming through, I would have had no idea that I had been Martha, a Russian troll.

A Facebook spokesperson indicated that anyone who faces this situation should go to Facebook.com/hacked to report it, but declined to respond to more detailed questions. I’m still in the dark regarding why—and how often—this happens; how the hackers carry it out; and, if the hacker had changed my alert email, how I would have ever found out that one of my online personalities had been hijacked.

So, if you get an alert on an old account, don’t ignore it—it could be the start of something really wrong.

And finally, a word to Facebook: Your reporting mechanisms stink! Users shouldn’t have to dig through countless menus to find reporting options, and then figure out what exact category of trouble might be close to the problem. The Facebook.com/hacked site offered nothing in the ballpark. Here’s a suggestion: One menu option should be “I believe my identity is being used by a Russian troll.”

A version of this post appears in the June 2018 print magazine. 

This article is for IEEE members only. Join IEEE to access our full archive.

Join the world’s largest professional organization devoted to engineering and applied sciences and get access to all of Spectrum’s articles, podcasts, and special reports. Learn more →

If you're already an IEEE member, please sign in to continue reading.

Membership includes:

  • Get unlimited access to IEEE Spectrum content
  • Follow your favorite topics to create a personalized feed of IEEE Spectrum content
  • Save Spectrum articles to read later
  • Network with other technology professionals
  • Establish a professional profile
  • Create a group to share and collaborate on projects
  • Discover IEEE events and activities
  • Join and participate in discussions