- The social network is 'recycling' likes alongside new, related content that the users may never have seen
- When Facebook attaches a user's 'Like' to the new Related Post content they do not inform them it has happened
- In some cases users have even seen content and brands 'liked' on the website by friends who are dead
- Facebook spokesman says the feature is part of the Sponsored Stories ad product and users are able to opt out
By Damien Gayle
Facebook has been accused of 'impersonating' its users 'without their consent' to secretly endorse items in the news feeds of their friends.
Critics say the social network is recycling users' Likes and using them to promote 'Related Posts' about products and stories with which they may not want to be linked.
In some cases users have even seen items 'liked' by friends and relatives who are in fact no longer alive.
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'Helps you connect and share': But it seems that Facebook has been sharing content on its users' behalf without their explicit consent - or even their knowledge
The process is completely invisible to the users whose identities are being exploited, it is claimed, with the posts only showing up in the news feeds of friends and families.
It happens when a user likes an advertiser's Facebook page. As would be expected, this 'Like' appears on the user's page and is recorded on their activity log.
However, an advertiser using Facebook's Sponsored Stories ad product can then take that 'Like' and attach it to related content promoted to the particular user's friends as a 'Related Post'.
For example, if a user were to like Starbucks' page on Facebook and the coffee shop chain paid to advertise a new variety of coffee on the social network then that 'like' could reappear on friends' news feeds next to a Related Post promoting the new product.
In effect, once a user Likes a particular brand, the social network then recycles that indication of approval for later 'Related Posts' by that advertiser which the user may never have even seen.
And there is no indication to the user that their 'Like' is being attached to such related content.
Minneapolis-based developer Craig Condon said he first became aware that Facebook was recycling his likes when a friend asked him if he liked 'penis-shaped waffles'.
That shocking association spurred him to investigate the phenomenon using a fake account, and he has posted a video to YouTube documenting what he found out.
'Facebook is impersonating people without their consent, and most individuals have no idea this is happening,' he wrote in a related article on Bureau Of Minds.
'Facebook is impersonating people without their consent': This screengrab from a YouTube video by Craig Condon shows where his fake account set up to investigate Related Posts is linked to an article
He showed how the feature works by using his fake account to Like pop culture magazine Vice, then logging in with his genuine account to find that identity was linked by a Related Post to a risque story published by his website.
However, logging back into the face account showed that the Like was completely invisible to the user, and there was no way of finding out about that the identity and the story were linked, or to withdraw consent.
'This goes beyond just advertising on a user's behalf,' he wrote. '[M]y friends & family might think I like inappropriate content, or information I don't agree with - it can damage relationships.'
In the cases highlighted by Mr Condon each story was labelled as 'related', but apart from that the posts looked like any other and with no explanation of what 'related' meant in that context.
The accusations come even as Facebook agreed to a $20million settlement of a class-action lawsuit brought by users angry about their identities being linked to Sponsored Stories on the site.
The lawsuit alleged the adverts are a violation of privacy that unwittingly turns users into spokesmen for products without their approval.
And that is not the worst of what Facebook is accused of. Another Facebook user last month documented a range of cases where friends had liked brands that seemed completely out of character.
HOW YOUR NAME COULD BE ATTACHED TO 'RELATED POSTS' THAT YOU'VE NEVER SEEN
Related Posts are part of Facebook's Sponsored Stories product for advertisers.
Sponsored Stories are based around content users have already interacted with on Facebook by, for example, liking a particular brand's page.
Advertisers can pay the social network to ensure that user's friends see this interaction with a brand, but they can also publish fresh, related content alongside that Like as a Related Post.
In this way, users' identities can be linked with content on the site that they may be entirely unaware of, let alone have endorsed.
For example, if a user was to like the Facebook page for Nike, and the sportswear brand was to publish fresh content on Facebook about a new trainer they are marketing, then that user's Like could be republished to their friends alongside the post about the new footwear.
Indeed, in some cases highlighted by Bernard Meisler on ReadWrite Social, the person who had liked the item in question was no longer actually even alive.
Mr Meisler conducted his own investigation by asking his friends whether they had liked the particular brands they had been linked with, and none said they had.
After contacting Facebook to ask them directly what was going on, a spokesman told him its possible these people liked the things they were linked on accidentally, perhaps by inadvertently pressing a button on the mobile app.
The spokesman maintained that in the case of dead people liking things, it could be that the social network is recycling likes from when they were still alive.
When contacted by MailOnline, Facebook said that Sponsored Stories were 'useful' for giving 'social context' to pages promoted on the site.
'Sponsored Stories are based around content that people have already interacted with on Facebook, for example a friend liking a page,' a spokesman said.
'Advertisers can pay to ensure you see this interaction, although the precise audience is government by an individual's privacy settings.
'For most of us the opinion of our friends is an important factor in how we view the world and many people find it useful to have this sort of social context when discovering new Facebook pages.
'However we also give people the option to opt out of Sponsored Stories.
'When Facebook users die, we ask that their families or close friends notify us so that we can memorialize the account.
'That enables us to remove it from the Sponsored Stories system.'