No, Facebook’s Graph Search Is Not Turning Up Racists and Cheaters

As with all web phenomena, Facebook’s new Graph Search tool now has an associated joke Tumblr.

The premise of Actual Facebook Graph Searches is that Facebook’s new search function will allow Facebook users to find all manner of miscreants and hypocrites. Like, “Current employers of people who like Racism,” or “Spouses of married people who like [find-an-affair site] Ashley Madison,” or, more worrisome for some, “Mothers of Jews who like Bacon.”

Tom Scott, the Brit who designed the site, explains his rationale in an FAQ: “I’m not sure I’m making any deeper point about privacy: I think, at this point, we’re basically all just rubbernecking — myself included. Facebook does have good privacy settings: but there are many, many people who don’t know how to use them!

Now, I love mocking Facebook’s porous privacy practices as much as the next guy, and it’s clearly newsworthy that even Mark Zuckerberg’s sister can’t keep tabs on who is seeing her information on Facebook. But this Tumblr strikes me as getting at a valid concern in all the wrong ways.

I’ve been testing Graph Search for about a week now, and it’s true that it does open up a lot of possibilities. I’ve already used it to find friends to invite to a party, search out a long-lost mentor, and snoop on people who aren’t friends with me. But — and this is the crucial point — all those things were possible before. Graph Search, like all search engines in the history of the web, doesn’t change the amount of information out there; it simply tries to organize it in a more intuitive way.

I haven’t found any closet racists or cheaters or treyf-eaters yet, for one simple reason: These people don’t spill their secrets on Facebook. Search for “People who like Porn,” and you’ll find a bunch of false positives and jokers — a woman who belongs to anti-porn groups, and a guy who is clearly kidding when he lists “Porn” as his favorite movie and “Bonerville” as his hometown (note: I’m pretty sure that guy is a Daily Intelligencer commenter). But you won’t actually find any porn addicts. The same thing happened when I looked for “People who live in New York and like Racism,” which turned up no actual racists, but plenty of members of the joke group, “Casual racism from grandparents.”

There are more serious objections to Graph Search – that it will turn up results for queries like Islamic men interested in men who live in Tehran, Iran,” thereby outing closeted Muslims and jeopardizing their safety. But while those concerns are somewhat more valid (and while this would be a good time for closeted Iranian men to recheck their privacy settings), Facebook still isn’t making any more information available than was already searchable. The only people whose privacy will be compromised will be the people whose privacy has always been compromised — who either willingly put embarrassing things on their Facebook profiles or who don’t know how to operate privacy controls.

Some paranoia is justifiable — Facebook has, of course, historically been shady as hell about expanding the availability of its users’ data. And as Techcrunch notes, the appeal of Actual Facebook Graph Search is less about specific searches than the vague, inchoate feeling of discomfort that many of us have about having so much of our personal information on Facebook. But the amused horror with which people are passing around the Tumblr and the serious potential its founder suggests the results could have (he lists “Aren’t you giving ideas to repressive governments?” as one of his FAQs) imply that there could well be a very real backlash when Graph Search moves into a wider release, like the one that greeted Instagram when it changed its terms of service.

Like the Instagram freak-out, the Graph Search backlash would be based on some flawed premises. But that wouldn’t necessarily stop it. As we’ve seen recently, a joke Tumblr in the hands of worried techies can be a potent weapon.

Facebook Search Not Exposing Racists, Cheaters