Think before you click: Experts warn that ‘likes’ can be loaded with meaning

Think before you click: Experts warn that 'likes' can be loaded with meaning
Conservative MP Tony Clement asks a question during question period in the House of Commons on Parliament Hill in Ottawa on Thursday, April 13, 2017. Clement says he is resigning from some of his duties after sending sexually explicit images and a video of himself to an individual or a party he claims targeted him for the purposes of financial extortion.THE CANADIAN PRESS/Sean Kilpatrick

TORONTO:  Be careful about what you ‘like’ on social media, experts warn, because the click of a button could be loaded with meaning _ intended or not.

A like is a blunt instrument that can impute a complex range of interpersonal meaning, say researchers, but these cues can become muddled in the transmission from one user to another.

Depending on how it’s deployed, a like can be a token of affirmation, a subtle slight, a flirtatious gesture, a digital betrayal or an act of aggression.

While the digital semiotics of hearts, thumbs-up and emoji may seem trivial to some, several high-profile figures have found that likes can land you in hot water.

MP Tony Clement, a former Conservative stalwart who has been ousted from his caucus, admitted Thursday to having had more than one inappropriate online relationship amid allegations that he used social media to connect with young women, message them privately and like their photos.

“During a period of personal difficulty and weakness I engaged in inappropriate exchanges that crossed lines that should never have been crossed,” Clement wrote in a statement to his constituents in the Ontario riding of Parry Sound-Muskoka.

Clement’s statement came as part of series of disclosures this week about sharing explicit images of himself online, which he said were consensual and mutual, but led to multiple acts of infidelity, alleged extortion attempts, and forced him to turn to police after a woman was offered money in exchange for intimate information.

The growing scandal prompted veteran NDP MP Nathan Cullen to call for women and social media companies to be brought into a critical discussion about how parliamentarians conduct themselves online.

“This aspect of liking (online images), trolling, I don’t recall it being talked about,” Cullen said. “It is another layer but it is striking. This is not the first online sexual story that’s happened.”

Ramona Pringle, director of Ryerson University’s Innovation Studio, understands Cullen’s bafflement. Pringle said many people think of likes as being a one-on-one interaction between users, when in fact, those digital exchanges are viewable to everyone else in their social media network.

“That a controversy could come from something as simple as a like, I think to other generations, may have seemed unfathomable,” said Pringle. “A decade into the social-media era, I think certainly people in public roles would know by now that everything they do online has the potential to be under scrutiny.”

And indeed it is _ social media sleuths are scrutinizing feeds closely.

Shortly after the premiere of the latest season of ABC’s “The Bachelor,” it was discovered that star Garrett Yrigoyen had liked Instagram posts that mocked transgender people, feminists and Parkland, Fla., shooting survivor David Hogg. He responded quickly by deleting the account and apologizing, describing the likes as “mindless taps.”

Last year Texas Sen. Ted Cruz said an aide with access to his Twitter account inadvertently liked pornography _ an episode that gained widespread attention on Twitter before he addressed it.

Jaigris Hodson, a professor at Royal Roads University in Victoria, cautioned that every like must be read within its individual context, taking into account the power dynamics between the participants, what content is being engaged, whether that interaction is welcome and whether it fits into a broader pattern of behaviour.

An errant tweet may be nothing more than a mistake or a hack that, through the force of virality, becomes ginned up into a scandal, said Hodson. But if there’s a power imbalance between users, unsolicited likes can be akin to a cat call, or even forebode an escalation of predatory online behaviour.

“It’s a very complex issue, and I think it’s much more complex than simply what we like or don’t like,” said Hodson. “As an individual user, you do have to be reflective about your behaviour.”

Pringle said a single like can be understood on three different levels: There’s the intent of the liker, the message interpreted by the receiver, and the public’s perception of the interaction.

This ambiguity can turn what was meant to be a simple expression of acknowledgment into a virtual Rashomon, where the meaning of a like tends to be in the eye of the beholder.

“It’s a necessity of digital literacy to sort of understand that these new modes of communication, where … it seems ridiculous that (a like) could harbour so much meaning, but we will read a lot into things,” said Pringle. “Relationships are complicated, and I think our online relationships are as complicated as any of them offline _ if not more.”

While older social media users may be oblivious to these nuances, said Pringle, the digital generation has forged a complex etiquette of liking, whereby a lack of reciprocity could signal a social imbalance, and these pixular metrics can determine a person’s sense of self-worth.

For 23-year-old Jesse Boland, a like can be a reflexive tap of a screen, or a shot across the bow.

If a friend likes a post by someone he’s feuding with, he may question where the supposed ally’s loyalties lie.

Scrolling through a romantic prospect’s profile pictures on Facebook, Boland will like the first photo as a courtesy, and the second as a sign of intrigue. But like a photo too far back in someone’s online albums, he warns, and you’ll seem desperate.

And when a post flops, Boland said one has to wait a few days before taking it down, he said, so as not to seem too preoccupied with likes.

His philosophy is to like liberally, but not too liberally, lest he be mistaken for an overzealous relative on Facebook.

“To them, they’re scrolling around because they have no real twisted intention, and they’re liking a photo because they … think it’s literally just saying, ‘I like this photo,”’ said Boland. “

“Their intentions are very, very harmless, and they don’t understand the coding and nuances that we overly invest into it.”