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What’s Up With Phantom Facebook Likes?

Even though Facebook has taken steps to eliminate fake likes, we must admit that we, like Bernard Meisler of readwrite.com, have noticed some strange “liking” activity on our newsfeeds of late.

During election season, we noticed liberal friends suspiciously “liking” Mitt Romney–and now, as Americans go about our holiday shopping, we see some of our friends liking things like Target and Verragio Engagement Rings multiple times. Per day. No one we know is that much of a bargain-lover or bridezilla-in-training. We’ve even read reports of deceased persons “liking” things from beyond the grave. What’s going on here?

The thing is, while several possible explanations for this phenomenon exist, some weird “likes” remain shrouded in mystery. Take, for example, one carless-by-choice individual who found that his profile said he “liked” Subaru, when he didn’t in fact own, want, or feel any affinity toward Subarus whatsoever.

Similarly, we’ve had friends tell us that they had to manually “unlike” everything from retailers to movies that they swear they never clicked in the first place. It’s possible for someone to like something by inadvertently pressing a button–especially while using Facebook’s mobile app. But this fact hardly explains the larger phantom phenomenon.

Mystery likes aside, you can thank Facebook’s recent business strategy — allowing users to “promote” their posts for a fee — for those repeated reminders that your friend Annie from middle school likes Macy’s. The new promote “option” has been lambasted from all sides — we “friend” people so we can read about what their cat did today, not because we care which fast food joint they prefer. Businesses, blogs, bands, and other entities that people “liked” in order to keep abreast of relevant information feel like they’re being used as well.

PR strategist and social media expert Ryan Holiday called Facebook’s “promote” feature the “biggest bait and switch in history.”

He claims that Facebook created the problem (i.e. posts only reaching 15 percent of a page’s followers), and then magically proposed a solution: they can help make sure your messages reach more of your fans, but you have to pay them for the privilege.

“…through ‘Sponsored Stories,’ brands, agencies and artists are now charged to reach their own fans—the whole reason for having a page—because those pages have suddenly stopped working. This is a clear conflict of interest. The worse the platform performs, the more advertisers need to use Sponsored Stories. In a way, it means that Facebook is broken, on purpose, in order to extract more money from users. In the case of Sponsored Stories, it has meant raking in nearly $1M a day.”

So our questions, as PR professionals, are as follows: Given all of this, how are average Facebook users supposed to put any stock in their friends’ “likes” if they can’t even be assured that those friends even visited the pages in question? Will mistrust in “likes” carry over to the brands themselves? And if Facebook really is earning major profits from an (intentionally?) broken system, will the blowback spur reforms, or will brands and artists simply have to buy into the “promoted” posts in order to compete and stay relevant? It’s a lot to consider.

While we let you hash it out, we’ll be double checking our own “likes” — for all we know, our friends from afar are being fraudulently informed of our sudden, mysterious love of “Honey Boo Boo” as we speak.

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