For Twitter and Facebook, fake and inactive accounts are the enemy within. Their presence undercuts the bold claims social networks make to reach and influence billions. Advertisers and investors know swathes of the prime real estate promised by user data are uninhabited badlands.

Yet cleaning up platforms is proving difficult. Twitter’s recent decision to delete accounts that have not been logged into for six months sounded like a neat bit of housecleaning — until users complained about losing accounts created by loved ones who had died. That illustrated the paradox Facebook’s boss Mark Zuckerberg and Jack Dorsey of Twitter are wrestling with. It is unclear who user accounts really belong to. Abandoned or multiple accounts were not all created for the purposes of commercial or political fakery. Some represent pets, different aspects of a person’s identity or the deceased.

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