A few years ago (three or four years ago, I think), researchers conducted a study to find out how willing Facebook users are to friend complete strangers. They set up two accounts for fictional “people” and used cute animals as profile pictures. It didn’t take long before both accounts had hundreds of friends. Even more alarming is that the people who friended the accounts were free and easy with the personal information they shared. Addresses, phone numbers, birthdays, personal emails – everything was available for a complete stranger to see.
You’d think that people would have learnt to be more discerning and circumspect by now, but according to recent findings from a team of researchers from the University of British Columbia, Vancouver, they haven’t.
The team set up 102 “socialbot” accounts and sent out over 5000 friend requests to random users. Initially, users were fairly circumspect; only 976 of the requests were accepted (less than 20%). But, when over 3500 requests were sent to friends of the new friends, over 2000 accepted the requests (nearly 66%).
Let’s ignore the fact that, as Arstechnica, pointed out, the researchers shouldn’t have been able to set up so many fake accounts – which were bot controlled – because Facebook is supposed to have mechanisms in place (Facebook Immune System) to detect bot accounts and block them. Facebook claims that the researchers’ figures aren’t accurate and that it blocked more accounts than claimed, but that’s not what we’re concerned with.
Instead let’s look at what this means for marketers.
For starters, many people still have public accounts, which means that anyone who happens to drop by can see all sorts of information, even photo albums. Secondly, people aren’t really making use the assorted privacy options available for different types of friends (close friends, family acquaintances). So, people who friend complete strangers allow them access to all their personal information.
The wealth of information available to be exploited for direct marketing efforts is astounding.
Thirdly, people are more likely to friend others, even complete strangers, if one of their friends has already done so. In theory, this means that digital marketers and brands only have to reach a core of highly connected fans for their Facebook presence to spread.
What are the implications for Facebook users?
Facebook can only do so much to protect users before users have to start protecting themselves. Facebook can impose limitations on the number of friend requests accounts are allowed to send out (or try to) and it can (try) to detect bots designed specifically to mine user information. But unless people really, honestly, truly start paying more attention to the accounts they friend and making a concerted effort to control their privacy settings, their information will remain fair game.
(Image by chidsey, stock.xchng)