Yup, Facebook really is scanning your private messages to increase likes

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Forget all the furore around sporadic private messages appearing on your Facebook Timeline — the world’s largest social network may just have admitted to crossing the line between private and public.

According to The Next Web, Facebook has confessed that sending a link in a private message will increase the number of likes on the third-party site the link originated on.

The revelation came about after a video (NSFW) was posted on Hacker News by Polish startup Killswitch.me. The video also shows something else interesting: sharing the link in a private message makes a site’s like counter increase by two likes, even though neither the message sender or receiver actually clicked ‘like’.

When The Next Web approached Facebook about the issue, it called it a “bug” that it was “working on [a] fix” for:

We did recently find a bug with our social plugins 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. To be clear, this only affects social plugins off of Facebook and is not related to Facebook Page likes. This bug does not impact the user experience with messages or what appears on their Timelines.

It was then asked to clarify whether the bug was that links were causing double likes or the likes themselves, Facebook confirmed that the double likes were the issue. Yup, Facebook’s parsing your private messages for links to increase a site’s like counter.

In fact, it admits as much on the like button web page on Facebook Developers:

  • 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.

Although your links are used to increase likes, they won’t appear as likes on your Timeline. Facebook also says your profile details won’t appear on the like button to your friends who also like the site:

Absolutely no private information has been exposed and Facebook is not automatically Liking any Facebook Pages on a user’s behalf.

Many websites that use Facebook’s ‘Like’, ‘Recommend’, or ‘Share’ buttons also carry a counter next to them. This counter reflects the number of times people have clicked those buttons and also the number of times people have shared that page’s link on Facebook. 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 says there are also other reasons that it goes through your private messages: “Our systems parse the URL being shared in order to render the appropriate preview, and to also ensure that the message is not spam.”

TechCrunch’s Drew Olanoff reckons that the action is tantamount to breaking the separation between shurch and state.

Others like Josh Constantine thinks we shouldn’t worry so much about machines reading your private conversations.

This isn’t a human reading your messages, it’s a machine scanning them. Facebook would need to do that anyway to prevent spam. As for the result, there’s no Like, my face doesn’t appear next to the button, and nothing shows up on my profile. It’s just an anonymous +1 on a counter, letting it more accurately reflect that people are interested in a website. I think we need to ease back from philsophical outrage about perceived privacy violations and ask if this actually hurts us. I don’t think this does.

There’s another issue at hand here too. A Facebook like has certain connotations, as does a recommend. They imply tacit approval of the link. That’s why some sites separate their shares from their likes. If you’ve slagged off an article in a private message should it really be included in the likes?

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