Facebook Likes and the Power of Opinion

Facebook freedom of speech

[The following is a guest post from Danny Brown.]

When you visit a website or blog post and hit the Facebook Like button, what’s your intent behind that action? Or, when you click the Like button on a Facebook brand page, how about that?

Is it because you like the brand and/or blogger, and the message or service/product they’re providing? Perhaps you just like the latest product, but aren’t so keen overall on the brand.

It’s a question that was taken to a new level of complexity with a legal case over in Virginia, with six ex-employees of the sheriff’s office fighting their dismissal for liking the page of an opponent in the recent election for the sheriff’s badge. When the residing sheriff won the election in question, the six employees were subsequently fired.

However, they claimed their Like should have been protected under the First Amendment right to free speech, because it implies stated opinion and is therefore just as symbolic as the right to wear a black armband when in mourning. The judge presiding over the case, though, disagreed:

A Like is not a substantive statement, and because it’s not a written comment or post, the constitution does not protect it when it comes to free speech.

Facebook, perhaps obviously, disagreed with the judge and filed an amicus curiae in support of the six defendants. In a statement released by the social network giant, it claimed:

The district court reached a contrary conclusion based on an apparent misunderstanding of the way Facebook works; the resulting decision clashes with decades of precedent and bedrock First Amendment principles.

Strong words. So why did Facebook feel so strongly?

The Power of Opinion

From a purely business angle, Facebook needs to show that the Like button means more than just a casual click of a mouse.

When attracting advertisers to the platform, they need to show the power of the Like button for driving awareness, loyalty and, ultimately, sales.

From an end user point of view, they need to show users that when they choose to Like a page, blog post, product or status update, the brand recognizes what’s working and what isn’t, therefore making better products in future iterations.

From another angle – that of common sense – it stands to reason that if you, as a consumer or reader, like something enough to offer vindication of that something by a Facebook Like, that should be recognized as your opinion.

As such, that should be protected under the First Amendment, or similar free speech acts outside of the U.S.

This is the angle that the six defendants are pinning their case on.

The fly in the ointment, if you like, is another factor – that of peer requests and loyalty to friends. Because Facebook requires you to have a minimum 25 Likes before your Page can claim its own vanity URL, as opposed to the Facebook default, many people (myself included) ask friends and contacts to like the page to get access to customizing the domain.

Additionally, when a blog post is published, friends often ask for help in promoting via social sharing, part of which is the Facebook Like option.

Because of these factors, the power of the Like button can be diluted as it loses the opinion argument to the favour one.

The Road Ahead

One thing is clear from this case, and the recent release of archived tweets of an Occupy Wall Street protester to the New York District Attorney’s office – social media and true free speech may be coming to an end.

And if that happens, what then for users of these sites as well as the Internet in general?

  • Does a Reddit vote count or not?
  • Does the voting up of a comment on a system like Livefyre or Disqus count?
  • How about the favoriting of a tweet?

When you take these actions at the moment, it’s because you strongly agree or honestly like, approve, endorse, etc, that point of view. And, if you do that, then that should count as opinion, no?

Interesting times ahead.

Danny Brown

About Danny Brown
Danny Brown is Chief Technologist at ArCompany and an award-winning marketer and blogger. His blog is recognized as the #1 marketing blog in the world by HubSpot. Danny is also co-author of Influence Marketing: How to Create, Manage and Measure Brand Influencers in Social Media Marketing.

  • http://antoniocalero.com/ Antonio Calero

    The debate has only started and without a specific legislation for online issues it could be never-ending. The reasons for “Liking” a page could be numerous and not necessarily associated to the “positive attractiveness” that means the word “Like”. For example: it’s a quick way of getting status updates on your News Feed and thus commonly used for people to know what the competitors are doing (could this be the case of these 6 people?)

    As a marketer, I MUST like the pages of all my competitors for this reason. I’m sure many other marketers do the same, will we all get fired because of lack of loyalty to a specific brand? Apparently, if this sentence is final, we could….

    The problem of the online world is, it is not well understood by lawyers and legal practitioners, leading sometimes to ridiculous cases like this one, or the famous Charles Carreon vs. The Oatmeal (Google it….it’s hilarious !!! )

    • http://dannybrown.me/ Danny Brown

      Exactly, Antonio – and if a competitor has a page locked down except for those that Like it, how else will you get to see how your competitors are using Facebook versus your brand?

      Your last paragraph is so spot on – people are making decisions without the knowledge of how these platforms work, and the type of approaches you need to take at times to keep abreast of what’s happening.

      Strange and worrying times – a lot of education clearly needed.

  • http://www.arielmarketinggroup.com/ Amy McCloskey Tobin

    I’m with Antonio; when Oracle Social appeared to be purchasing or somehow gaining likes in a suspicious manner, I stayed on the page as a “Liker” so that I could monitor how Oracle handled it. Apparently, they were merging together pages of companies they’d purchased. What if your Like was just to monitor a page? What if your LIKE was to monitor a political party?

    I hope Facebook wins despite their statement of what a Like is, because it’s scary days ahead if you can lose a job based on the political pages you Like.

    • http://dannybrown.me/ Danny Brown

      That’s a very valid point, Amy, and as you say, competitive intelligence is one aspect where a Like would be mandatory, if the brand had the Page content locked down except for those that like it. Seems to be a no-brainer, but then who said legislators were always brainy? ;-)

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  • http://www.facebook.com/scottwayres Scott Ayres

    That’s pretty wild. But in some manners does show the importance of a Like and the fact that we need to be more picky as to what we like.

  • http://www.facebook.com/profile.php?id=501456842 Ken Mueller

    I’m not overly worried, because I think that case in Virginia would be overturned in a higher court. The other side of it, however, and I’ve written about this a number of times, is that not all like are equal. I might like a business page because they are a competitor of one of my clients. I “like” a lot of pages that I don’t really like. It’s not all about agreement. I’ll often share posts with which I disagree, and because I disagree. Or might share the post of a friend, because I value and respect their opinion, even if I disagree with them.

    A like can meet a lot of things, but not necessarily that I “like” them.

    • http://dannybrown.me/ Danny Brown

      Here’s something interesting that happened in the last few days, re. opinion and what can be said on Facebook.

      There was a discussion around a power social media user using the Boston tragedy hashtag on Twitter to welcome people to “her nest”. While the tweet itself wasn’t one of the worst examples, it stirred a conversation about ethics on Facebook.

      Generally, the conversation was respectful, though there were a couple of examples of off-topic personal descriptions. The person being discussed was sent a screenshot of the wall topic, and she worked with someone that organizes Twitter conferences to get Facebook to remove the post, and all associated conversations along with it.

      Now, let’s take this further – if you don’t agree with the opinion of people discussing things on their own Facebook wall, and you have the connections to have it removed, what does this imply for brands on Facebook moving forward?

      The freedom of individuals is only free if it adheres to the viewpoints of certain people, it would seem. If that happens, welcome to the decline of what made social great in the first place…