Report: Facebook scanning private messages, Liking on users' behalf

Facebook Like
Bumping up Likes?

Facebook reached one billion active users Thursday, a feat it celebrated by likening itself to a chair, among other inanimate objects, but the good news may be tainted by a recent revelation.

According to reports, Facebook is scanning users' private messages and automatically issuing Likes on their behalf.

The Likes are reportedly done without user permission and are based on links to "Likeable" pages sent between users. One link accrues two Likes, Forbes reported.

A video picked up by Hacker News (and subsequently taken down by YouTube) reportedly demonstrated the two-Like increase.

Gizmodo also seemingly verified it by messaging a friend with a link to singer-songwriter and producer The-Dream's official Facebook page. The-Dream's Like count went up without a click of the Like button.

Facebook explains

TechRadar contacted Facebook for comment on these reports and received a response from a Facebook spokesperson explaining what they say is really going on.

According to the spokesperson, Facebook social plugin Shares, not Likes, are affected and not actual Facebook pages.

"Absolutely no private information has been exposed," the spokesperson said via email. "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."

Social plugins "let you see what your friends have liked, commented on or shared on sites across the web" and occur off Facebook, according to the site's developers page.

The spokesperson continued to say there is a bug that sometimes bumps up social plugin Shares and Likes by two, and the company is working to fix the error.

"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 [a] fix to solve the issue now."

The spokesperson reiterated the social plugin and Share side of the message scanning issue.

"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."

Shares are an anonymous activity, the spokesperson noted.

Likes through the inbox

As for the Gizmodo report and YouTube Video, the spokesperson pointed TechRadar to the "Like Button" section of its developer site, specifically to information titled "What makes up the number shown on my Like button?"

The site explained that "the number shown is the sum of":

  • 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.

With that information, it appears Facebook pages accrue Likes due to link sharing via private user messages, though TechRadar is still waiting for official confirmation.

Message scanning isn't anything new, by the way: Gmail scans user emails to create targeted ads and Facebook also reportedly scans user messages to look for sexual predators and child pornography.

Michelle Fitzsimmons

Michelle was previously a news editor at TechRadar, leading consumer tech news and reviews. Michelle is now a Content Strategist at Facebook.  A versatile, highly effective content writer and skilled editor with a keen eye for detail, Michelle is a collaborative problem solver and covered everything from smartwatches and microprocessors to VR and self-driving cars.