Last month, while wasting a few moments on Facebook, my pal Brendan O’Malley was surprised to see that his old friend Alex Gomez had “liked” Discover. This was surprising not only because Alex hated mega-corporations but even more so because Alex had passed away six months earlier.
The Facebook “like” is dated Nov. 1, which is strange since Alex “passed [away] around March 26 or March 27,” O’Malley told me. Worse, O’Malley says the like was “quite offensive” since his friend “hated corporate bullshit.”
Here's a screenshot:
Brendan sent me this info in response to a request I had made on Facebook to my friends. Not long ago I asked people to send me screenshots of weird or suspicious behavior. I did this after noticing some bizarre things happening on Facebook —such as friends of mine showing up as “liking” things that I know they don’t like, such as liberals “liking” Mitt Romney and a guy with no car who "liked" Subaru.
When I contacted these people they swore they had never liked these brands, and they had no idea that this stuff was going out under their names.
So what is going on?
The Mystery Of The Unintended Likes
Full disclosure: I’m an active Facebook user, and I really enjoy it. I use Facebook to stay in touch with my friends and family who are scattered across the country and world. I also use Facebook to promote the arts magazine I publish, Sensitive Skin.
The first sign I saw that something was not quite right was that after I’d spent a lot of time getting people to “like” the Sensitive Skin page, fewer and fewer people were seeing my posts.
More people had been seeing my posts six months earlier, last winter, when I only had 800 likes, than this past summer, when I had more than 2,000.
Then I heard about Facebook’s latest idea, getting users to pay to “promote” our own posts, so that more people would see them.
Many people find promoted posts egregious, and the blowback has been well documented. A site called Dangerous Minds called promoted posts “the biggest bait and switch in history.” Mark Cuban complained in an article on The Huffington Post and made the same case here on ReadWrite.
Nevertheless, in August I decided to give Sponsored Posts a try to promote Sensitive Skin. That’s when the weirdness began.
Strange Results From Sponsored Posts
My number of post views did indeed go up, according the statistics provided to me by Facebook. But these likes didn’t seem like “quality” views or likes. I was getting likes from folks in South America, the Middle East and Eastern Europe. Comments were posted not only in languages I couldn’t understand, but in alphabets I didn’t recognize.
This was suboptimal — not to mention extremely weird — for a literary magazine written in English.
Then I started noticing something else. “Sponsored Posts” were popping up near the top of my newsfeed, and some of them made no sense.
A number of my liberal friends supposedly had “liked” Mitt Romney, for instance. And my friend Nicolala, a high school English teacher from San Francisco, had “liked” WalMart.
I started tracking these unlikely likes, taking screenshots and following up with IMs to my friends. I asked Nicolala if she had indeed “liked” Walmart, and her answer was succinct:
I found it odd that my friend E.V. Grieve, who writes an anti-gentrification blog about New York’s East Village, would “like” Subaru.
I asked E.V. if he’d pressed the “like” button for Subaru, and he replied:
Then he said that he went to his profile and “unliked” Subaru. I asked, shocked, wait, you mean Subaru actually went and “liked” themselves for you, without your knowledge?
The Plot Thickens
OK, that’s pretty messed up, I thought. I put out a notice on my Timeline, asking my friends if they’d seen any unusual behavior regarding “likes” and ads.
The response was overwhelming.
Patti Walsh, a teacher who lives in Minnesota, was not pleased to see she’d inadvertantly liked a household disinfectant, since she had never “liked” this brand.
Ruby Ray, a photographer from San Francisco, and Bart Plantenga, a radio host from Amsterdam, were also perturbed.
Bart was doubtful that his friend, a committed anarchist (hey, it’s Holland) had actually liked a bunch of corporate brands.
Bart's anarchist friend even liked Shell Oil! Now that's a bit unusual.
In response to my inquiry, Martin Sarna, a graphic designer from New York City, started checking around among his friends. He too came up with a number of aberrant ads involving the movie “Life of Pi,” San Pellegrino water and McDonald’s.
He annotated the screen grabs with comments from his friends and sent them to me:
"No, I did not press like. Maddening. I look at Facebook less and less because it lies more and more."
"I did not `like' San Pellegrino. This stuff is making me want to get off the FB."
"It's counterfeit! I'm vegetarian and it's actually offensive!"
I See Dead People … Liking Things
But at least those people were alive when they fake-liked something.
Emma Kumakura, a game designer in Palo Alto, Calif., was outraged to see her friend Alice Mizer Stewart, who had passed away in March, shilling for a tea company.
Emma took a look at Alice’s profile and it appears that she did, in fact, like The Republic of Tea. Nevertheless it’s kind of disturbing to have people liking brands from beyond the grave.
Moreover, Emma saw that she herself supposedly had “liked” Budweiser. But Emma doesn’t drink and hates beer.
A Facebook spokesman says the “likes” from dead people can happen if an account doesn’t get “memorialized” (meaning someone informs Facebook that the account-holder has died). If nobody tells Facebook that the account-holder is dead, Facebook just keeps operating on the assumption the person is alive.
In that case, someone’s “likes” from months and months ago can still keep surfacing in the news feeds of their friends, since Facebook recycles “likes” long after they first occur. Who knew?
Thing is, according to my pal Brendan O’Malley, there’s no way that his late friend Alex, who “hated corporate bullshit,” would have “liked” Discover.
And what about all these other “likes” from living people, the ones where someone is credited with “liking” something and they swear they didn’t do it?
The Facebook spokesman says it’s possible those people “liked” something by accident, by inadvertently pressing a button, perhaps on the mobile app. In response to the specific example of Nicolala liking Walmart, Facebook insists it really did happen: “We show that the Like happened on 10/01 at 6:46 p.m.,” the spokesman says.
Fair enough. But these accidents seem to be happening a lot. Are there really that many people accidentally claiming to like stuff that they actually don’t like at all?
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.
But are the brands themselves doing it? Or are third-party services selling fake “likes” to brands? Supposedly Facebook has been trying to crack down on fake likes. Nevertheless they seem to keep popping up.
This might be funny except that it’s also kind of disturbing. I mean, isn’t the enormous market valuation of Facebook predicated on its vast store of information about users, and its ability to use that information to precisely target ads?
If Facebook can’t get this under control, what does that say about the value of its data? The persistence of these fake likes is an unnerving thing for Facebook users and investors alike.