Wednesday, October 10, 2012

Facebook Messages Scanned for Links: Disaster or Not, Already Existing, Continuing, Not Averted, Only Partly About Privacy

Many websites make use of Facebook's Like social plugin.  Many instances of this plugin include counters next to them (presumably a publisher that does not want to display the counter can elect not to by removing the "button_count" attribute, or through another means).  A recent video demonstrated that links in Facebook messages affect counters on plugins within the corresponding pages.  Specifically, it showed that including, in a Facebook message, a link to a website with the Like plugin increased the corresponding plugin's counter by two.  Indeed, Facebook documentation shows that the counter on Like plugins is aggregated from a few data sources:

  • "The number of likes of this URL
  • The number of shares of this URL (this includes copy/pasting a link back to Facebook)
  • The number of likes and comments on stories on Facebook about this URL
  • The number of inbox messages containing this URL as an attachment."

That last part, inbox messages, is the newest news, either because it's new, or because no one knew about it.  Facebook clarified this news, identifying the increase amount of two as a bug, and also clarifying that the increase itself is not a bug.  Facebook emphasized this:

"When the count is increased via shares over private messages, no user information is exchanged, and privacy settings of content are unaffected. Links shared through messages do not affect the Like count on Facebook Pages." [Facebook, via Gizmodo]

Facebook told The Next Web:

"Our systems parse the URL being shared in order to render the appropriate preview, and to also ensure that the message is not spam."

And apparently also to affect Like counters where applicable.

Imagine you're a visitor to a website.  Not a lot of imagination required.  Imagine there is a Like button.  Some imagination required this time, as I don't happen to have that plugin here.  Beside the button there is a counter; it simply displays a number, and that is all.  What's that number look like to you?

Now imagine you're at a different website, reading an article:  you see a Like button, except this time, it's a different version of the Facebook plugin; you see the button followed by "633 people like this. Be the first of your friends."  633 people clicked the Like button, of course.  Correct?  Facebook's not psychic?

In the second scenario, the plugin explicitly lies to you (as opposed to implicitly lying to you).  Not because the button isn't an actual representation of the exact number of people who like the page (lower-case "l"):  it's obvious that it's not that.  Rather, it is because the plugin is not a representation of what it appears to represent, that being the number of clicks that its "Like" button has received.

Why is this dishonesty bad?  Firstly, because it's dishonesty.  And it's dishonesty on the part of Facebook as well as the publishers who choose to use Like counters on their sites.  Secondly, Facebook's system can misrepresent the number of people who have liked (lowercase "l") a page on a website.  I implore Facebook to not have this as their goal— the number on Like counters should represent the number who have clicked the button and only that— but if Facebook is to have this be their goal, this is not the way to accomplish it.  Even that Facebook uses Likes in the News Feed along with clicks on the plugin is harmful.  I want to be able to post a link to something, along with "this is the dumbest thing I have ever seen," and if my friends agree with me and express that agreement by clicking "Like," I don't want that to help whatever dummy doesn't deserve the inflated Like count.  (I sound so mean when I say that; I'm sorry.)

Note:  I don't know what counts as a "story" in the News Feed, but I think a status update is included in that; if not, I retract my example.

As to the newest news, the news about Facebook messages, a privacy disaster has either been shown to be non-existant, or is very real.  I don't think there's nothing to see here, so I guess that means I'm on the disaster side.

The "disaster" is not that Facebook is scanning messages:  it's well-known (and probably well-accepted) that Gmail does that; others do that.  Though that is certainly a concern of many, it isn't a concern of aforementioned (aforelinked?) Drew Olanoff.  His concern is that Facebook is interpreting an action within a "private" message, and then taking a public action.  Mr. Olanoff correctly asserts that this is not made okay by the anonymity with which the public action is taken.  I agree, but I don't feel any better if I publicly post something on Facebook and that gets added to a Like counter.  What I mind is that Facebook's action is an automatic action based on my action, and a bad one.  Maybe I only mind that it's bad.

I should also point out that drawing a line between "private messages" and everything-else-on-Facebook is a bit silly.  Lots of people limit the visibility on their Facebook posts, making this a false dichotomy.

Further Notes:

The consequences of Like counters being counted the way they are are minimal.  I don't see how this could cause a great deal of damage.  It's upsetting, though, that Facebook sets stuff up this way.  It's stupid, and who does it help?  Well, publishers of websites who want to trick their readers, but we, the readers of websites, can all fight back by not being tricked, by knowing about how the Like counter actually works and by knowing about Like fraud, which Facebook is working to remove (while also engaging in it by not getting rid of this system that inflates Like numbers).  It won't do any good, but we can try.

If Facebook's goal is to properly represent the number of lowercase "l" likes of a web page, why not just double the number?  Triple it even, for good measure.  Just be transparent about it, so we can divide by three.

I like Inside Facebook's comparison to site visitor widgets, though I think there is a difference:  when you see a site visitor widget, you know people might have come to that site for different reasons, though you might not think about it, making site visitor widgets perhaps a little deceitful, and more importantly, Like counters on websites are much more so for the reasons I've outlined in this post; Inside Facebook touches on them too:

"Some people [have] taken issue with Facebook adding private shares to the public total for a link, though we see this as similar to site visitor widgets, which increase whenever a user visits a webpage but do not reveal who visited. Even if the privacy implications are minimal, there is the matter of all these actions being combined under the 'Like' or 'Recommend' wording, which suggests positive feelings, even though some users might have shared a link that they disagreed with [or] wanted to talk about for reasons besides recommending it…"

Read this Reuters article about Facebook and other sites scanning for sexual predators.

I am not sure what will happen if one sends a Facebook message with a link in it and then closes out the thumbnail that auto-generates.  This may not count as sending the link as an attachment.

Here's Facebook's documentation, again, on what makes up the Like counter numbers:

  • "The number of likes of this URL
  • The number of shares of this URL (this includes copy/pasting a link back to Facebook)
  • The number of likes and comments on stories on Facebook about this URL
  • The number of inbox messages containing this URL as an attachment."

I should clarify, and by clarify, I mean speculate, that the number of "comments on stories," for example, does not necessarily increase a Like counter number by one per comment.  There's an open question of how much Facebook is inflating numbers.  Your guess is as good as mine.

I've got to call out Gizmodo (and I hate to say it, but Lifehacker too, another Gawker Media blog) for putting the Like button for their site in just such a location that it looks like it's the Like button for the currently open article.  Sneaky.

Comments below (if you're on this post's page).  I use DISQUS, not Facebook Comments, so they won't be counted as Likes.

That last sentence was a joke; I don't know if comments on Facebook's commenting platform have this behavior; they might.