"Anyone else getting sick of these daft posts?" my "friend" Chardon asked. This was on Facebook a while back. That's why I put "friend" in quotation marks. She was talking about an annoying trend: posts showing up on Facebook news feeds, saying something like, "Name a city without an 'R' in it. It's harder than it looks!"
It's not hard, of course. Ouagadougou, Vilnius, Montevideo all leap to mind. And Budge Budge in India. I'm sure there are others.
So what's the deal? Why go to the trouble of posting such an easy puzzle on Facebook?
Another "friend" replied, "Maybe someone is testing to see how many posts this rubbish can get."
And he was partly right. The rest of the explanation turns out to be creepy and may affect you even if you're among the dwindling minority of Canadians not on Facebook.
It gets especially creepy when the post is less benign and strikes an emotional chord: "'Like' if you hate cancer." "'Like' if you hate bullying." "If I get enough 'likes,' my dad will quit drugs."
I can slam the door in almost anyone's face, but there are enough softies out there that posts like these will draw a response - a big response. The people who respond probably put some effort into minimizing the junk mail at their door. They get on the do-not-call registry. They uncheck the website boxes for promotional spam from companies. But if they click "like" on a Facebook post because they're against famine or they think that kitten video is cute, they may have just volunteered for something they didn't expect. And if that person is a "friend" of yours, they could rope you in too.
Daylan Pearce, a self-described "search nerd" with Australia's Next Digital, recently exposed how this works. It's called "like farming." A Facebook page is created, with an appeal for readers to like, comment or share. The creators, who are working together to build these pages, share it among themselves. They all have big networks, so the pages instantly get into thousands of other people's news feeds. When those people respond with a "like" or a share, then it reaches their friends. Suddenly, the thing has spread faster than a high school rumour.
Then what? Then the people who started it, having quickly acquired tens of thousands of followers, sell the page. Now an advertiser has all those names and Facebook addresses. And that advertiser, who isn't allowed to phone you and whose flyers go straight to your recycling box, is sending you commercial messages on Facebook.
Annoying, but harmless, you might think. Unless you're Terri Johnson. She's a mother of five in the U.S., who was surprised to find a picture of her daughter Katie on a viral Facebook post. Someone had taken a picture of Katie from Terri's Facebook account and renamed her in a post that read, "This is my sister Mallory. She has Down syndrome and doesn't think she's beautiful. Please like this photo so I can show her later that she truly is beautiful."
By the time Terri was alerted to this, 3.5 million sympathetic, well-meaning people's emotional buttons had been pushed, all so they would push the "like" button. Imagine your privacy being violated and your family innocently embroiled in a cold-hearted lie to make a buck. You might feel even more sick and angry than the Johnsons.
Facebook long ago redefined the word "friend," removing much of its meaning. Now its exploitation by "like farmers" erodes a bit more of our humanity.
People are starting to wise up to these scams - they will be wary of the obvious ones and become leery of posts that tug at their heartstrings. But the bad guys find the angles faster than the rest of us figure out how to protect ourselves. They're already becoming more subtle and sophisticated, and any popular cause or pop culture phenomenon is at risk of being exploited. And each new scam creates more cynicism as the rest of us slowly clue in.
More than 18 million Canadians are on Facebook, wanting it to be a safe place to catch up with people we like, not a place to be distrustful of anything popular, or suspicious of our friends.