In February, Facebook announced that the “like” button would be joined by five other emoji reaction options. For users who had wanted a dislike button, it was a welcome change. But people recognized from the start that Facebook could also benefit from giving its users this enhanced flexibility and choice by gaining more insight into their preferences and moods. And there could be some potential privacy issues there.
On Wednesday, the Belgian police department published a statement discouraging citizens from using Facebook’s reaction buttons. It explains that giving Facebook data about your opinions and mood allows the company to serve you ads based on what it thinks you will be most receptive to seeing in a particular moment or on a particular day.
My colleague Will Oremus wrote on Slate in February, “Facebook has come to believe that the key to its long-term success lies in gathering ever more and ever richer data on how its users react to the posts they see in their feed.” Limiting the reaction buttons to six choices instead of giving users the whole emoji library helps Facebook get a simplified and distilled idea of what its users think about things instead of having to wade through endless combinations.
“By limiting their number to six, Facebook is counting on the fact that you’ll express your thoughts more easily, which will allow the algorithms running in the background to track you better,” the Belgian police explain (as translated by Slate’s L.V. Anderson). “This will be a reason not to click too quickly if you want to protect your private life.”
Facebook’s “like” button has already been involved in legal questions about protected speech and the First Amendment. It feels like such a small thing to react to a photo of your friend’s new dog, but that tiny piece of data offers insight into who you are.