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Facebook scans private messages for brand page mentions, admits a bug is boosting Likes

facebook private messagesThis week a Hacker News post indicated that Facebook is reading our privately sent messages, scanning them for content, and Liking pages depending on said content. For instance, if you send a friend a message about the Beyonce concert that includes a corresponding link, it’s possible Facebook will go ahead and Like Beyonce’s official page for you – maybe even twice.

A video explaining how the social network scans and analyzes message content for “likeable” data showed how one such message increased Like counts by two – the video has since been pulled from YouTube. But privacy researcher and consultant Ashkan Soltani created a test page to see if sending a link via Facebook Messages could bump up its likes. You can try it by grabbing this link, and without hitting Like, send it via private message to a Facebook friend – and before you do, note the number of Likes. Once sent, that number should increase by two. You can watch this in action below. 

okc like boostWhile the test page method consistently works, there’s a little more confusion about actual brand pages. I sent a handful of brand page links to a Facebook friend, noting the number of Likes before and after. Though the numbers increased, there’s no way to definitively tell if this is from my sending them or from other users legitimately hitting Like on these pages.

Still, there’s some pretty overwhelming evidence to suggest Facebook is reading private messages. Soltani, who also originally saw the post on Hacker News and checked out the since-pulled YouTube video, explains. “The video was focusing on how to boost likes, and one thing I noticed from the demonstration was that in order to do this, he was sending private messages, and this implies Facebook is scanning private messages.” Basically, when you send a link through a message on Facebook, it creates a thumbnail that you essentially are previewing. Facebook does monitor this preview to make sure you aren’t sending malware – a simple security system. “But the value only gets increased when the link is actually sent – the preview and URL verification won’t increase the number of Likes,” Soltani tells me.

“We know Google has been doing this for awhile, but I think it’s surprising for most people that Facebook is doing it,” he says.

Not only is it surprising that Facebook is monitoring messages, but that it’s leading to Like-boosting. It does two things for brands: One, it gets them those new Likes. Two, it gives them a more accurate view of their organic shares. Privacy options on Facebook means it can be difficult for marketers to track how their pages are being shared, but Facebook reviewing what’s in private messages mean they can get a better idea – Soltani, in fact, found that Facebook Insights were reporting the increase in organic shares of his page over private messages.  

fb insights organic shares

In response to the report, a Facebook spokesperson says that while private information isn’t being shared out of messages, data is being recorded to give brands better organic share numbers and also admits there appears to be a bug increasing Likes: 

“Absolutely no private information has been exposed. Each time a person shares a URL to Facebook, including through messages, the number of shares displayed on the social plugin for that website increases. Our systems parse the URL being shared in order to render the appropriate preview, and to also ensure that the message is not spam. These counts do not affect the privacy settings of content, and URLs shared through private messages are not attributed publicly with user profiles. 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’s an interesting twist shortly after Facebook has staked so much in ridding the site of Like-jacking and faked Likes – not to mention the social network’s unending bid to win user trust.