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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, 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.

Photo: Getty/New Statesman
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The mother lode: how mums became the ultimate viral fodder

The internet’s favourite joke used to be "your mum". Now it's "my mum".

“I was like: oh my.”

Terri Squires is describing her reaction to the news that she had gone viral. Last month, more than 213,000 people shared a tweet about Terri – but it wasn’t sent from her account. The 50-year-old Ohioan was propelled to internet stardom by her son, Jeff, who had tweeted about his mother.

“I didn’t really realise what it meant at first until he was like: ‘Mum, you do realise that millions of people have looked at this?’ … When I started seeing those numbers I was like: ‘Oh boy’.”

It’s a funny story – and Terri laughs heartily all she tells it. After coming out of a meeting, she checked her phone and noticed a picture of a missing – white – dog on Facebook. She quickly texted 17-year-old Jeff to check that the family dog, Duey, was safe. “That’s not Duey… Duey’s face is brown,” replied her son. “OK – just checking,” replied Terri.

More than 600,000 people “liked” Terri’s mistake after Jeff shared screenshots of the text message exchange on Twitter. But Terri is just one of hundreds of mums who have gone viral via their sons and daughters. Texts mums send, mistakes they make, things they fail to notice – these have all become the ultimate viral fodder.

In the last three months alone, Gerald’s mum went viral for a microphone mishap, Adam’s mum shot to Twitter fame for failing to understand WhatsApp, Lois’ mum got tricked by her daughter, Harry’s mum was hit in the head with a football, Hanna’s mum misunderstood a hairstyle, and Jake’s mum failed to notice her son had swapped a photo in her home for a portrait of Kim Jong-un.

But how do the mothers behind these viral tweets feel?

“I'm pretty much a mum that everybody wants to talk to these days,” says Terri, with another warm laugh. The mum of three says going viral “is not that big of a deal” to her, but she is happy that her son can enjoy being a “local superstar”. But is she embarrassed at being the punchline of Jeff’s joke?

“Believe me, I have thick skin,” she says. “I kinda look at what it is, and it’s actually him and his fame. I’m just the mum behind it, the butt of the joke, but I don't mind.”

Not all mums feel the same. A handful of similar viral tweets have since been deleted, indicating the mothers featured in them weren’t best pleased. A few people I reach out to haven’t actually told their mums that they’re the subject of viral tweets, and other mums simply don’t want any more attention.

“I think I’ve put my mum through enough with that tweet already,” says Jacko, when I ask if his mum would be willing to be interviewed. In 2014, Jacko tweeted out a picture of his family writing the word “cock” in the air with sparklers. “This is still my favourite ever family photo,” he captioned the tweet, “My mum did the ‘O’. We told her we were going to write ‘Love’.”

“No one ever expects to call home and say ‘Mum, have you heard of something called LADbible? No, you shouldn’t have, it’s just that a quarter of a million of its fans have just liked a photo of you writing the word ‘cock’ with a sparkler’,” Jacko explains.

Although Jacko feels his mum’s been through enough with the tweet, he does say she was “ace” about her new found fame. “She’s probably cooler about it all than I am”. Apart from the odd deletion, then, it seems most mums are happy to become viral Twitter stars.

Yet why are mums so mocked and maligned in this way? Although dads are often the subject of viral tweets, this is usually because of jokes the dads themselves make (here’s the most notable example from this week). Mums, on the other hand, tend to be mocked for doing something “wrong” (though there are obviously a few examples of them going viral for their clever and cunning). On the whole: dads make jokes, mums are the butt of them.

“We all think our mums are so clueless, you know. They don’t know what’s going on. And the fun thing is, one day we come to realise that they knew way more of what was going on than we thought,” says Patricia Wood, a 56-year-old mum from Texas. “People always kind of make fun of their mums, but love them.”

Last year, Patricia went viral when her daughter Christina tweeted out screenshots of her mum’s Facebook posts. In them, Patricia had forgotten the names of Christina’s friends and had candidly written Facebook captions like: “My gorgeous daughter and her date for formal, sorry I forgot his name”. Christina captioned her tweet “I really can't with my mom” and went on to get more than 1,000 likes.

“I felt, like, wow, it was like we’re famous, you know. I thought it was really cool,” says Patricia, of going viral. Her experiences have been largely positive, and as a part-time Uber driver she enjoys telling her customers about the tweet. “But I did have one bad experience,” she explains. A drunken passenger in her car saw the tweet and called Patricia an “asshole”.

Another aspect of viral fame also worried Patricia. She and her daughter were invited on a reality show, TD Jakes, with the production company offering to pay for flights and hotels for the pair. “I have too many skeletons in my closet and I didn't want them to come dancing out,” says Patricia, of her decision not to go. “By the time I got off it, it would be the Jerry Springer show, you know. I’m kind of a strange bird.”

On the whole, then, mothers are often amused by going viral via their offspring – and perhaps this is the real beauty of tweeting about our mums. Since the moment they earn the title, mums can’t afford to be fragile. There is a joy and relatability in “my mum” tweets – because really, the mum in question could be anyone’s. Still, from now on, mums might be more careful about what they tell their sons and daughters.

“When I send Jeff a text now I make sure I’m like: ‘Is my spelling correct? Is what I’m saying grammatically correct?’,” says Terri, “Because who knows where the words are gonna end up?”

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

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