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Here’s why Facebook says user photos have ‘automatic’ descriptions

Facebook users were left wondering why their photos have automatic descriptions following Wednesday's outage on the social media platform. .
Facebook users were left wondering why their photos have automatic descriptions following Wednesday's outage on the social media platform. . Craig Phillips/Twitter

A Facebook outage on Wednesday revealed how the social networking giant’s artificial intelligence describes the contents of photos.

Several social media users posted screen grabs of their accounts during the outage, showing photos that had failed to load. Instead, the blank boxes contained descriptors of the photos.

READ MORE: Instagram, Facebook restored after glitching up throughout the day

“Image may contain: 1 person, beard,” read one descriptor, shared on Twitter by user Craig Phillips.

Another descriptor posted on Twitter read: “Image may contain: 4 people, people standing and shoes.”

While some social media users wondered whether the descriptors were used as information for targeted ads, Facebook said they had a different purpose.

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In a statement to Global News, Facebook said it has been using “automatic alt text” since 2016 in an effort to make the site more accessible.

The text, which is automatically generated using object recognition technology, creates a short photo description. That description, according to a blog published by Facebook in April 2016, helps visually impaired readers.

WATCH: Facebook, Instagram and WhatsApp experience outages

Facebook, Instagram and WhatsApp working again after outages
Facebook, Instagram and WhatsApp working again after outages

“People using screen readers on iOS devices will hear a list of items a photo may contain as they swipe past photos on Facebook,” the blog explained.

Facebook also gives users the ability to change the automatic text associated with their photos in case the AI technology doesn’t get it right.

READ MORE: Facebook blames ‘server configuration change’ after platform goes down for almost a day

Confusion over the Facebook photo descriptors was just one conversation prompted by Wednesday’s hours-long outage.

Many other users also noted that Facebook, Instagram and WhatsApp have been hit with several outages lately. Most notably, an outage in March left users without access for more than 24 hours.

The Guardian noted the outages have come amid reports that the company is working on merging the messaging platforms Facebook Messenger, WhatsApp and Instagram Messenger.

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Facebook said that outages were prompted by “routine maintenance operations.”