What’s in a like? Facebook reveals private sharing counted as likes on social plug-ins

5 Oct 2012

Another day, another Facebook privacy concern, as the social network admits to a bug that miscounts likes in social plug-ins while also revealing that links sent in private messages are being scanned and counted as likes.

By now I’m sure we’re all familiar with Facebook’s social plug-ins, which appear on sites across the web allowing users to share and like content through their Facebook profiles. In fact, there’s one at both the top and bottom of this article.

The number indicated here isn’t just indicative of the number of users that have liked the article via this plug-in, but the total number of likes this URL has earned across the Facebook network, as well as the number of shares and comments this link has on the social network, and – surprisingly to most users – the number of private Facebook messages containing this URL as an attachment.

So, users’ private messages on Facebook are being scanned by bots to boost the like counter. Not only that, but these likes are counting for double.

Double the trouble

It all started with a video posted to Hacker News and spotted by The Next Web. This video showed that when a link was sent via Facebook Messenger, the like counter on the third-party website’s social plug-in went up not one but two notches.

While Facebook admitted that the double count was a bug, the fact that sharing links via a private-messaging service counts as a like at all appears to be standard practice.

“We did recently find a bug with our social plug-ins where at times the count for the share or like goes up by two, and we are working on fix to solve the issue now,” Facebook’s statement read.

In defence of scanning users’ messages for shared links, Facebook has asserted that this information is not attached to individual user accounts. “Absolutely no private information has been exposed and Facebook is not automatically liking any Facebook Pages on a user’s behalf,” the social network clarified in a statement.

“When the count is increased via shares over private messages, no user information is exchanged, and privacy settings of content are unaffected,” it added. Basically, this means that any sharing of a URL with a social plug-in will be totted up on the counter, but those in private messages are done so anonymously with no indication of the interaction appearing on the user’s account or Timeline.

Likes versus interaction

Facebook’s bots already scan links in private messages to counteract spam so adding a function that also counts certain links as an additional share or like, where no personal information is collected, is just a side-step on this action. However, the issue has raised Facebook users’ privacy concerns once again and also calls into question the validity of the counters.

If every single like, share and comment makes the figures go up, does this necessarily mean that the content is ‘liked’, or just that it’s controversial, perhaps even disliked or the subject of debate or ridicule? On Facebook’s social network, only a thumbs-up is permitted, never the alternative. If every interaction is counted as a positive one regardless, are these social counters truly representing the online discussion?

Elaine Burke is the editor of Silicon Republic