A few weeks ago, as I was writing a Facebook update, I noticed that a friend who had been arrested in Syria had “liked” a Facebook page dedicated to selling insurance policies. I was shocked and immediately checked his status to see whether he had been released. He had not updated his status for months, and yet he appeared to like some random page from a company that I do not believe he would have had any interest in anyway.
I thought it was a mistake and did not do further research on the issue until I read a post by Read Write Social focusing on unusual behavior regarding “likes” and “ads”. The examples mentioned by the author include liberal friends liking Mitt Romney, a committed anarchist liking corporate brands, and even a friend liking pages months after her death.
Facebook´s explanation to Read Write Social reads: “the ´likes´from dead people can happen if an account doesn't get ´memorialized´,” meaning that someone has informed Facebook that the account-holder has died. Many questions remain, however: What if the user never liked the page in the first place? What is the explanation for this.. unusual behavior? What are the implications of someone “liking” something they don't actually like? One example of this is that Facebook “likes” have been used in court cases in the past.
At Global Voices Advocacy we are concerned about this and have contacted Facebook about it. We received an email from a Facebook spokesperson thanking us for bringing the issue to their attention but we have not received any explanation so far.
We have also conducted a survey among our community to find out whether our members have noticed unusual behavior regarding Facebook pages and ads. From the 20 users who responded, 12 reported suspicious occurrences:
“Yes, constantly. Here are a couple of cases: Friends without kids liking Pamper.s ads; a guy liking Falabella, a retail store promoting jewelry; my husband liking a news outlet that had nothing to do with his interests”
“Yes, I notice this every day. Is this part of some hidden advertising campaign?”
“Yes, it happened to me once. I don´t remember the page name but it was some indian cricketer”
Yes, it happened several times. When i go the Pages Feed I find updates from pages i liked along with pages that i never liked. I couldn't understand on what basis as there is no common things between the pages i didn't like. One example is a page about food, Shawerma El Rim.
The fact that Facebook users may appear showing interest or support for content they may not agree with is a dangerous indicator. What someone likes or dislikes, the news they follow and the campaigns they support has to do with their identity, and faking this may compromise them publicly.
Another response to our survey highlights the following:
“I recently took screenshots where my friend ‘liked’ Mitt Romney and Lincoln Cars, neither of which appeared in his ‘likes’ according to his Facebook page. (Just on my Facebook homepage) He told me he had never “liked” either one of those pages. He is also a pretty devout Democrat, and received a bunch of ‘hate’ Facebook messages because of the ‘like’ being displayed.”
The responses we collected reflect complaints not only regarding Facebook pages and ads but also the Event tool:
“My friend created a birthday event only for 6 classmates, but her privacy setting for event was “Friends of Friends”. I checked with her, she had invited only 6 of us. I was shocked to find out that my cousin had clicked the “Maybe” option, meaning she had been invited, since my friend and her are not friends! Someone else who is neither my friend not the event creator's friend also (have) appeared to have joined the event. We don’t know who he is, and he was obviously not invited to this event. This sounds very dangerous to me. What if this person actually showed up in my friend´s house?”
Who is behind these fake “likes” and invitations?
According to the author of the Read Write Social piece, Bernard Meisler, “it’s hard to imagine that Facebook would start ‘liking’ stuff on people’s behalf without their knowledge or consent. Even for Mark Zuckerberg, the guy who once said of his members, ‘They trust me — dumb fucks,’ this would be a stretch.”
However, it is also hard to imagine that brands and third party advertisers would act without Facebook´s knowledge and consent. Either way, Facebook should be concerned about what this means for its credibility and reliability.