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Is Facebook scraping the Fediverse?

7 April 2021 (2 minute read)

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💯 100 Days to Offload

This article is one of a series of posts I have written for the 100 Days to Offload challenge. Disclaimer: The challenge focuses on writing frequency rather than quality, and so posts may not always be fully planned out!

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I don’t use Facebook often. In fact, I only have an account currently because our company uses the “Login with Facebook” functionality in order to offer an additional single sign-on option for some customers.

I logged-in today as we needed to update some of the app’s configuration on the Facebook Developer portal, and I went via the Facebook homepage feed to get there. A couple of “Suggested for you” posts that showed near the top of my feed were unusual and caught my eye.

Facebook Suggested Post Tram picture

There wasn’t just one. As I scrolled further, more and more showed up - all seemingly from the same user.

Another Facebook Suggested Post Tram picture

Yet another Facebook Suggested Post Tram picture

The page (“Nostalgia Vienna”) doesn’t seem to be selling anything in these posts, and I’ve never interacted with them before. I also don’t have any content on Facebook and use browser plugins such as Firefox Containers, Privacy Badger, and others to try and prevent inadvertent data sharing with the social platform.

I know Facebook potentially has other ways of gathering user information, but I just simply don’t have a big interest in Viennese trams (or trams in general). I don’t really know why it is so keen to show me a new picture of a tram every few posts down the home feed.

I then realised that I recently posted a picture to Pixelfed of a tram that I took on a trip to Basel a few years back.

A screenshot of my tram photo from Pixelfed

My Pixelfed account is not explicitly tied to my own name or identity, but my bio there does contain a link to my website.

Interestingly, the styles and images of the Viennese trams suggested by Facebook are not a million miles away from my own post of the Swiss tram. The link feels tenuous but I can’t think of anything else that might cause Facebook’s algorithm to so strongly suggest this type of content to me.

I just wonder whether there is some clever scraping going on behind the scenes to further bolster Facebook’s knowledge of its users.

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