The settings on Instagram include a page devoted to the “Linked Accounts” feature. As you might expect, it displays … your linked accounts. Users have the option to connect to Twitter, Tumblr, and, of course, Instagram’s parent company, Facebook, among others.
On first glance, the feature appears pretty straightforward—apps that aren’t linked are shown in gray, linked apps appear in color. When it comes to Facebook, however, the feature may be misleading.
Like other platforms shown under the “Linked Accounts” menu on Instagram, the option to link your Facebook profile is ostensibly disabled by default. Users must tap the app’s grayed out logo and sign in before Instagram displays the two as connected. Once two profiles are connected, an option to “Unlink Account” appears in Instagram settings. Clicking there brings up a warning: “Unlinking makes it harder to get access to your Instagram account if you get locked out.”
Common sense suggests that if you unlink a Facebook account from your Instagram profile, you’ve unlinked that Facebook account from your Instagram profile. But like many things Facebook, common sense does not exactly apply here. Clicking Unlink Account does not actually unlink a Facebook account from Instagram, a Facebook spokesperson told WIRED, because it isn’t possible to separate the two. Even if a user never explicitly linked their Facebook and Instagram profiles, they are intrinsically connected—Finstagrams be damned—and will continue to be, regardless of how many times you mash “Unlink Account.”
That’s because the wealth of data that Facebook collects through its multiple services is more than enough to properly identify users’ various accounts and link them to one another. Even in cases where a different name, email address, or device was used to create each account—be it a throwaway WhatsApp profile, stalker Instagram account, or joke Facebook profile—Facebook often is able to suss out who is actually behind the account and whether they have accounts on other Facebook-owned apps.
“Because Facebook and Instagram share infrastructure, systems and technology, we connect information about your activities across our services based on a variety of signals,” a Facebook spokesperson told WIRED. “Linking or unlinking your accounts in the app doesn’t affect this.”
The disclosure comes as Facebook moves to integrate previously independent apps such as Instagram and WhatsApp. Messenger, Instagram, and WhatsApp are being combined into one mega-chat app (problematic enough on its own), while Instagram and WhatsApp have been rechristened as “Instagram from Facebook” and “WhatsApp from Facebook.”
But even as the apps are being woven more tightly together, they’re not all equal in the minds of Facebook executives. The Linked Accounts feature on Instagram appears designed to funnel traffic to Facebook, where user growth has flatlined, as Instagram’s growth continues apace. Meanwhile, Facebook last year made a contentious decision to stop funneling traffic to Instagram.
The spokesperson said Facebook began linking accounts behind the scenes based on data it had gathered about users shortly after it acquired Instagram in 2012. The spokesperson said that Facebook collects and connects this information about users’ activities in order to give users a “personalized experience” across all of the apps under the company’s umbrella, like more precisely targeted ads or in-app recommendations based on an amalgamation of the user’s cross-platform activities.
For users who thought they could keep various accounts separate, the realities of this “personalized experience” can prove frustrating. The spokesperson noted that Facebook could use this data to suggest that a user join a Facebook group that includes people that they follow on Instagram or chat with over Messenger. That could pose privacy concerns for users who want their activity on an unlinked Instagram account isolated from their prime Facebook profile.
The connections among these accounts pose additional challenges on the back end. Some users that set out to create Finstagrams complain that they’ve found their new accounts linked to their prime Facebook profiles, resulting in all of their friends, half-acquaintances, and distant relatives receiving a notification to follow their supposedly private Finsta.
Six Instagram users queried by WIRED said that, though they either did not recall ever linking their Facebook and Instagram accounts or explicitly unlinked the two, they are still served notifications that can only be dismissed by clicking the “Open Facebook” button inside the Instagram app. Despite the fact that their accounts are not explicitly linked, clicking the button brings them to either the Facebook app or a logged-in mobile web version of the site.
Asked about the issue, a Facebook spokesperson at first said it was a bug, then later described it as a feature. Regardless of whether an Instagram user has elected to link their Facebook profile, so long as they have an account, the company has linked the two internally, and tapping “Open Facebook” in Instagram will take them to the associated account, the spokesperson said. “It’s just one of the ways that we can help people to understand that Facebook is there,” the spokesperson said.
All users will likely see a notification bubble in Instagram which can only be dismissed by clicking Open Facebook. However, the number of notifications served to users who haven’t linked their Facebook accounts will effectively be made up.
“With an unlinked account … it’s not an accurate representation of what your actual number of Facebook notifications are,” the spokesperson explained. Tapping the Open Facebook button, the spokesperson said, ”will again either open the app if you have it or just open you onto the web page.”
The Facebook spokesperson says the company began testing the Open Facebook feature in June 2018 and introduced it to some users in August 2018. The spokesperson wasn’t sure whether the Open Facebook feature was currently the default for all users, or whether it was still being rolled out to all users.