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People you may know: is Facebook’s friend-finding algorithm putting you at risk?

Facebook is under fire after it recommended that a psychiatrist's patients add one another as "Friends".

The girl you went on a date with two months ago. Your therapist. The personal trainer you haven’t seen since January. Your lawyer, barber, maybe even your drug dealer. Scrolling through Facebook’s curated suggestions of  “People you may know” will often leave you feeling like the social network can read your mind. Don’t worry, it can’t. But it is reading your address book.

Most people are unaware that if you give Facebook access to your phone and email contacts (you can check if you’ve done so here and here) then it will use this information to recommend you “Friends”. In fact, simply having a phone number linked with your account means Facebook can and does mine your contacts. Although many users find it creepy and mysterious, this is why your Tinder date or the man you once sold a coffee table to will pop up in your sidebar from time to time. But what about the other – seemingly random – people listed under “People you may know”? According to Fusion.net, you may be more connected than you think.

Speaking to Kashmir Hill, a Fusion editor, a psychiatrist revealed how Facebook suggested that her clients should all become friends with each other on the site. The psychiatrist, who wished to only be identified as Lisa, said that one of her clients showed her his friend recommendations and she recognised many of her patients on the list. Hill concluded that because Lisa’s clients had saved her number in their phones, Facebook’s algorithm assumed they were all connected in a network.

Shocking as it is, Lisa’s case is nothing unusual. If you search the words “people you may know therapist” on Twitter, there is a tweet almost every day of someone complaining that Facebook recommended their health professional as a friend. If this many people are seeing their therapists within the suggestions, it is possible they’re also seeing their therapists’ other clients, whether they know it or not.

Dr Dawn Branley, a health and social psychologist specialising in the risks and benefits of internet and technology use tells me that if the algorithm works like this, the consequences could be “particularly problematic”.

“In addition to breaching patient confidentiality through allowing clients to identify one another, this could also raise issues over the triggering of negative behaviour,” she says, referring to patients who suffer with eating disorders or self-harm. “For example, it could encourage communication between vulnerable users or draw users’ attention to social media profiles which may include images or posts that could trigger negative health behaviour.”

Branley recommends that to avoid these issues, professionals should not link their Facebook with their work mobiles or email addresses. “There are options on Facebook to remove synced contact information and to opt out of syncing your phone contacts, should users wish to do so,” she says. “Therefore this should not pose too much of a problem providing users are tech savvy and aware of the implications of allowing access to their phone and email contacts.” As Whatsapp is on the cusp of sharing its one billion users’ phone numbers with Facebook, it’s also important to be careful there.

Unfortunately, being careful in this instance might not be enough. Even if you don’t share your phone contacts with Facebook, if someone who has your number shares their contacts, Facebook will still know you are connected. There is also potential that even if you don’t use Facebook, the site might assume two users are connected if they both have your phone number. If this is the case, psychiatrists would need to have one phone for each of their clients – an impossible task.

And it’s not just health professionals who are at risk. Anyone who uses their personal phone for work, or has download Facebook on their work phone, is vulnerable. Not only is it unnerving to see your clients on your recommended friends, potentially exposing your clients to one another is a problem for everyone from lawyers to drug dealers, to landlords to prostitutes.

“Almost every professional person I have had contact with has ended up in my ‘People you may know’ tool,” says Maya, a 37-year-old from Sydney who was shocked when her ex-therapist popped up nearly two years after she stopped seeing her. “Personal trainers, naturopath, accountant, yoga teachers, dietician, real estate agent, even customers at my work. It's always such an awkward feeling and has only served to reinforce why I share as little information about myself as possible.”

Maya didn’t have her therapist in her phone contacts, nor did she ever email her. It is likely that Facebook made the connection because her therapist had her number or email saved, making Maya’s own attempts at privacy redundant. She speculates, however, that Facebook made the connection for other reasons.

“The only way I can possibly imagine she would have been included would be if she had looked at my profile,” she says.

Although there is little evidence for this, it has long been a rumour that people who are stalking your profile appear as recommended friends. These rumours are given credence because Facebook’s description of how the “People you may know” tool works is extremely ambiguous. It reads:

“We show you people based on mutual friends, work and education information, networks you’re part of, contacts you’ve imported and many other factors.”

These “other factors” might be people who are looking at your profile, as Maya speculates, or they might be people who share the same phone contacts, as Hill believes. Facebook readily admits that it uses “the info you’ve uploaded about your contacts to make friend suggestions for you and others”, but it couldn’t confirm Hill’s case because Lisa was unable to share her clients’ confidential information with the site.

For now, then, individual users are the ones highlighting this flaw. Be it the woman who allegedly found out her husband had another family because of the tool, or the journalists worried about exposing their protected sources, multiple people have expressed their concerns. As far as finding out who your real friends are, then, Facebook has been indispensable. It is now clearer than ever that the site cannot be trusted. 

Amelia Tait is a technology and digital culture writer at the New Statesman.

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Clickbaiting terror: what it’s like to write viral news after a tragedy

Does the viral news cycle callously capitalise on terrorism, or is it allowing a different audience to access important news and facts?

On a normal day, Alex* will write anywhere between five to ten articles. As a content creator for a large viral news site, they [Alex is speaking under the condition of strict anonymity, meaning their gender will remain unidentified] will churn out multiple 500-word stories on adorable animals, optical illusions, and sex. “People always want to read about sexuality, numbers of sexual partners, porn habits and orgasms,” says Alex. “What is important is making the content easily-digestible and engaging.”

Alex is so proficient at knowing which articles will perform well that they frequently “seek stories that fit a certain template”. Though the word “clickbait” conjures up images of cute cat capers, Alex says political stories that “pander to prejudices” generate a large number of page views for the site. Many viral writers know how to tap into such stories so their takes are shared widely – which explains the remarkably similar headlines atop many internet articles. “This will restore your faith in humanity,” could be one; “This one weird trick will change your life…” another. The most cliché example of this is now so widely mocked that it has fallen out of favour:

You’ll never believe what happened next.

When the world stops because of a tragedy, viral newsrooms don’t. After a terrorist attack such as this week’s Manchester Arena bombing, internet media sites do away with their usual stories. One day, their homepages will be filled with traditional clickbait (“Mum Sickened After Discovery Inside Her Daughter’s Easter Egg”, “This Man’s Blackhead Removal Technique Is A Complete And Utter Gamechanger”) and the next, their clickbait has taken a remarkably more tragic tone (“New Footage Shows Moment Explosion Took Place Inside Manchester Arena”, “Nicki Minaj, Rihanna, Bruno Mars and More React to the Manchester Bombing”).

“When a terrorist event occurs, there’s an initial vacuum for viral news,” explains Alex. Instead of getting reporters on the scene or ringing press officers like a traditional newsroom, Alex says viral news is “conversation-driven” – meaning much of it regurgitates what is said on social media. This can lead to false stories spreading. On Tuesday, multiple viral outlets reported – based on Facebook posts and tweets – that over 50 accompanied children had been led to a nearby Holiday Inn. When BuzzFeed attempted to verify this, a spokesperson for the hotel chain denied the claim.

Yet BuzzFeed is the perfect proof that viral news and serious news can coexist under the same roof. Originally famed for its clickable content, the website is now home to a serious and prominent team of investigative journalists. Yet the site has different journalists on different beats, so that someone writes about politics and someone else about lifestyle or food.

Other organisations have a different approach. Sam* works at another large viral site (not Buzzfeed) where they are responsible for writing across topics; they explains how this works:  

“One minute you're doing something about a tweet a footballer did, the next it's the trailer for a new movie, and then bam, there's a general election being called and you have to jump on it,” they say.

Yet Sam is confident that they cover tragedy correctly. Though they feel viral news previously used to disingenuously “profiteer” off terrorism with loosely related image posts, they say their current outlet works hard to cover tragic news. “It’s not a race to generate traffic,” they say, “We won't post content that we think would generate traffic while people are grieving and in a state of shock, and we're not going to clickbait the headlines to try and manipulate it into that for obvious reasons.”

Sam goes as far as to say that their viral site in fact has higher editorial standards than “some of the big papers”. Those who might find themselves disturbed to see today’s explosions alongside yesterday’s cats will do well to remember that “traditional” journalists do not always have a great reputation for covering tragedy.

At 12pm on Tuesday, Daniel Hett tweeted that over 50 journalists had contacted him since he had posted on the site that his brother, Martyn, was missing after the Manchester attack. Hett claimed two journalists had found his personal mobile phone number, and he uploaded an image of a note a Telegraph reporter had posted through his letterbox. “This cunt found my house. I still don't know if my brother is alive,” read the accompanying caption. Tragically it turned out that Martyn was among the bomber's victims.

Long-established newspapers and magazines can clearly behave just as poorly as any newly formed media company. But although they might not always follow the rules, traditional newspapers do have them. Many writers for viral news sites have no formal ethical or journalistic training, with little guidance provided by their companies, which can cause problems when tragic news breaks.

It remains to be seen whether self-policing will be enough. Though false news has been spread, many of this week’s terror-focused viral news stories do shed light on missing people or raise awareness of how people can donate blood. Many viral news sites also have gigantic Facebook followings that far outstrip those of daily newspapers – meaning they can reach more people. In this way, Sam feels their work is important. Alex, however, is less optimistic.

“My personal view is that viral news does very little to inform people at times like this and that trending reporters probably end up feeling very small about their jobs,” says Alex. “You feel limited by the scope of your flippant style and by what the public is interested in.

“You can end up feeding the most divisive impulses of an angry public if you aren’t careful about what conversations you’re prompting. People switch onto the news around events like this and traffic rises, but ironically it’s probably when trending reporters go most into their shells and into well-worn story formats. It’s not really our time or place, and to try and make it so feels childish.”

Amelia Tait is a technology and digital culture writer at the New Statesman.

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