If Facebook‘s new Graph Search feature has you thinking a little harder about what you’ve “liked” for fear that an ironic dalliance in years past could come back to embarrass you, here’s one more thing to worry about. Facebook is now recycling users Likes and using them to promote “Related Posts” in the news feeds of the user’s friends. And one more thing, the users themselves have possibly never seen the story, liked the story or even know that it is being promoted in their name.
This was brought to my attention through a story by Minneapolis developer Craig Condon in which he accuses Facebook of “impersonating people without their consent.” See video above for his lucid documentation of the phenomenon, including the use of a fabricated account as a demonstration tool. In his own case, he had liked the irreverent media empire, VICE, and as a result, a rude post showed up on his mother’s timeline below a heading “Craig Condon likes VICE” and a divider with a slug that said “ RELATED POST.” His mother, of course, urged him to take the post down—but he couldn’t because he had never posted it!
Condon continues, “most individuals have no idea this is happening. Any post made by Facebook on your behalf is completely invisible to you, and only shows up in your friends’ & family’s news feed.” In many cases, these are innocuous. In some cases, your Like implies an interest in everything posted by the brand liked, but, obviously, not always. Sometimes your mom thinks you’re promoting rudeness!
“This goes beyond just advertising on a user’s behalf,” Condon writes. “My friends & family might think I like inappropriate content, or information I don’t agree with—it can damage relationships. In fact, I’m only familiar with this issue because a friend asked if I liked “[rude thing goes here!].” What else has Facebook posted on my behalf that I don’t agree with? What has Facebook posted on your behalf that you don’t agree with?”
You can say that Facebook is clearly labeling the content as “related,” but to the untrained eye of the average Facebook user, these posts look like any other. And unlike Facebook Ads that you can opt out of sharing the liking of with friends, or the sponsored stories that you can’t opt out of but at least are mentioned in Facebook’s Help Center, Related Posts are a completely undocumented feature.
It’s hard not to see this as intentionally manipulative and misleading on Facebook’s part. It has already made a preliminary $20 million settlement over its use of Sponsored Stories, but that’s not the worst of it. A story from ReadWrite by Bernard Meisler documents a boatload of cases where friends had supposedly liked brands that the writer couldn’t imagine them ever liking. Some of these friends were no longer even alive! Needless to say, when he went to these friends (or friends of friends in the case of the deceased) and asked if they had liked a particular brand, none said that they had. A Facebook spokesman maintained that all likes are the result of liking activity and possibly “those people ‘liked’ something by accident, by inadvertently pressing a button, perhaps on the mobile app.” Meisler (and I) find this explanation highly questionable. It does certainly seem like something fishy going on with Likes on Facebook.
Jim Edwards wrote a post a few months ago on Business Insider about how Facebook generates Likes in ways other than a user clicking a Like button. It turns out that Facebook also adds likes any time a user messages a link to a “likable” page. This automation in combination with fake bot accounts that can pump out these messages effectively create a method through which Likes can be bought. And even if your message that accompanies a link contains negative sentiment, Facebook still counts it as a Like. All publicity is good publicity, I guess. A recent “glitch” has even led to these robo-likes being counted twice!
Could this technique explain all of the mysterious Likes by Meisler’s friends? The liberals who “liked” Mitt Romney? The anarchist who “liked” Shell Oil? The vegetarian who “liked” McDonalds? Could be. Critical people routinely forward links that they are critical of to others they think will share their views. But if you are doing this “routine” activity on Facebook, you may be inadvertently bolstering the apparent popularity of the brand you are being critical of! And not only that, you may find yourself used as an unwitting spokesperson for that brand—just for speaking out against it! A spokesman told Edwards that Facebook was working on fixing the double-like glitch, but apparently ”it’s not going to alter its message-liking system.”
Condon posted his story on Hacker News and Reddit and both instances provoked lively conversation. He suggested the following comment, from Reddit, as representitive of many people’s reactions, ”I constantly see an ad saying one of my friends ‘Likes’ Match.com. It pops up every other time I use Facebook.” The commentor’s friend is in a committed relationship and when asked said she has never used the site or liked the site. This is a fairly innocuous case, but it’s not hard to imagine how seeming to Like Match.com could cause some tension, even in the most committed of relationships.
As Condon suggests, “The only way to prevent re-posted content is to unlike everything.” And as Facebook continues to abuse the Like function, or to allow (or at least be unable to prevent) third-parties from abusing it, many users may find themselves doing just that, or ditching Facebook altogether.