After 35 years in journalism, there aren’t too many things that shock me anymore. But the incident I’m about to describe surely did.
Someone scrolling through their own Facebook timeline a few weeks ago noticed that Premier Kathleen Wynne’s Facebook page was trumpeting details of the Liberals’ new plan to boost the minimum wage to $15. Then, in a big red box below those details, the copy read: “I support increasing the minimum wage,” with a big yellow box reading “YES,” inviting readers to click and add their endorsement to the government’s plan.
Then I saw five words above that which made me open my eyes wide. Very wide.
“Steve Paikin likes Kathleen Wynne.”
I’m not a huge Facebook user (Twitter’s more my thing), but I know enough about it to know that when you “like” something on Facebook, it’s often interpreted by others as an endorsement. And I can guarantee you, with my hand on a stack of Bibles from here to the moon, that I have never publicly endorsed this, or any other controversial policy of this, or any other government ever.
In fact, I have spent all these years in journalism trying to convince people that I am as non-partisan as they come. And yet, here was Facebook essentially claiming I was supporting a contentious policy choice of the government’s and for good measure, “liking” the premier too.
I don’t mind saying this was concerning to me. In fact, when I saw the offending screen capture of the Wynne “like,” I emailed TVO’s legal affairs specialist, The Agenda’s executive producer, and TVO’s vice-president of current affairs with the subject heading: “This is a big friggin’ problem.”
The bigger question for me was, how did this happen? I know I didn’t endorse the government’s minimum wage plans, and I certainly haven’t ever endorsed a party or party leader. And yet, there it was in Facebook black and white.
It’s possible I could have accidentally liked Wynne’s page. I highly doubt this. According to TVO social media specialist Jeremy Barker, it’s also possible that I had used a Facebook app that had permission to add likes automatically. I also do not remember doing this.
It’s also possible that, along with many others, I have been targeted by malware — software used to damage or gain access to someone’s computer without permission. The CBC’s Reg Sherren discovered he was the victim of malware when he noticed that his Facebook account had “liked” the Conservative Party of Canada.
“Third-party websites or videos that you are clicking on may have malware embedded in them, and you won't even know, that's the thing. It's very insidious in how it can happen and it's also very quick," a media consultant told Sherren when he wrote about his experience in 2015. Facebook itself offers tips on how to avoid social media fraudsters and getting rid of malware.
So far, I’ve done two things. I’ve gone through my Facebook home page and noticed a lot more ads which have been “liked” by Facebook friends of mine, even though I’m sure these people have never expressly done so.
And just to ensure this won’t happen again, I’ve gone through my own home page of “likes” — a list of every single Facebook acquaintance, any one of whose posts I may have “liked” over the years (maybe a pretty picture, maybe congratulating the Leafs for winning a game) —and “unliked” anything on the list originally posted by someone who’s a politician. Much to my surprise, there were at least two dozen names of politicians — federal, provincial, and municipal, from all parties, I might add, whose names were on my list. Apologies to all of them, but I’ve “unliked” you all.
Another thing one can do to avoid this from happening, according to Jeremy: Go to your preferences on Facebook. Then click: “Who can see your social actions paired with ads?” and select: no one. That will avoid your name being associated with advertisements you don’t endorse.
It seems a like a series of silly, overly cautious things to do. But when neutrality is your calling card, and some computer algorithm is determined to make you take sides, you do what you have to do.
I guess I’m going to have to be ultra-careful in what I choose to “like” on social media. Which is okay. (Unless the Maple Leafs win the Stanley Cup. Then somebody please remind me of this because in that case, I’m going to be not just “liking,” but loving everyone who like me is dreaming of that day.)
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