Facebook is having a tough time controlling its reputation for unfairly impacting political events, and this won't help: the social media giant can make users "like" a political candidate's page without their consent. It just happened to me.
I'm a journalist, so I don't like any any political pages, unless I feel I need to so to connect with a source. So I was surprised to see a notification on Tuesday that I'd been "added" to a page created by someone I knew was running for Congress.
"(My friend) started the (My friend) page. They added you and other friends from their profile," it says. (I'm keeping the candidate's name out of this.)
When I clicked on the notification, I saw immediately that Facebook indicated I had "liked" the page when I hadn't.
That concerned me. What if someone saw this and accused me of bias, or siding with a political party? But this concerned me even more: How could Facebook set me to like a Congressional candidate without my consent?
Facebook has a bad habit of nudging (shoving?) people to do things they haven't necessarily agreed to—it's been through several controversies over misuse of default privacy settings, for example. Just this week a German court said Facebook's defaults violated EU privacy laws. In a more subtle way, features like facial recognition in photo tagging nudge users to share more than they might otherwise. After all, it's much easier to tag someone in a photo than to untag yourself from it.
But automatically liking a political candidate? That seemed another leap entirely. So I went looking for an explanation. I asked Facebook and have not yet received a reply. But with the help of social media marketing expert Carri Bugbee, I found one.
When I shared the URL of the candidate's page, she noted that the phrase "friend migration" contained in it. The candidate, who was a Facebook friend, was in the process of converting his personal account into a professional "page." That's something a small business owner might do. Facebook pages offer some capabilities that personal accounts do not, so it makes sense for someone running for political office to undergo such a migration.
Facebook takes another step that disturbed me, however. It's explained by Facebook here:
"You can choose friends from your profile to automatically like your new Page, but posts on your profile won't be carried over to your new Page," the firm says on this page, which explains the migration process.
Indeed, if you are a Facebook friend with someone, and that person migrates to a professional page, you can be automatically set to "like" whatever it is he or she is doing—including running for Congress.
To be clear, I had the option to immediately unlike the page. Still, had I not noticed the notification, I would have had no idea I'd declared to the world that I liked a political candidate. Depending on settings, Facebook users can see what pages other users have liked.
To review: a Facebook friend ran for Congress, and suddenly I liked his "Me for Congress" page without any interaction from me.
It strikes me as an innocent mistake. If my friend had opened a coffee shop, I wouldn't worry much about the switch from friend to "like." A like on a professional page would help me follow his or her progress, much the same as a "friend" connection would. If I wasn't migrated from friend to a like, perhaps we would lose touch entirely. At least on Facebook.
Politics is trickier, however. In the age of overwhelming Russian propaganda attacks via social media—did you read this piece on Facebook’s terrible last two years? If not, you really should—this incident is very small potatoes. But it's another example of how Facebook's software decisions, which can seem neutral in laboratory conditions, can have unexpected, and potentially troubling, results in the real world.
If Facebook responds with additional information or an alternative explanation, I'll update the story.
This article originally appeared on bobsullivan.net