Are you a woman in your mid-20s, perchance?
As a daily Facebook user at the peak of my fertility (well, I assume; its data-gathering hasn’t got that specific – yet), my feed is full of advertisements for Clearblue and its competitors. One called Natural Cycles appeared a few days ago because it sought to “reach women aged 18 to 45 who live, or have recently been, in the United Kingdom”. You might say it’s casting a wide net.
Advertising is one of those areas in which the internet, and Facebook in particular, wears its unsettling insights on its sleeve. Just about every ad you see online says something about you, your habits, interests and desires, as gleaned from the hours you spend pootling around the world wide web. They’re so bespoke as to be utterly unobtrusive – until you see how someone else’s feed differs from yours.
Whatever Facebook’s pushing, it’s possible to find out why by clicking on the arrow on the top-right of any sponsored or “suggested” post, and then then “why am I seeing this?”
The same data is displayed at Facebook.com/ads/preferences, painted in brush strokes so broad as to be comical – think proper, Picasso-tries-a-face Cubist. Mine suggests I am interested in entrepreneurship, beaches, smoking as a treatment of meat, watercolour painting, women’s rights, Royal Caribbean International cruises, parties, and something called “botargo” that I understand to be a sort of salted relish made of fish eggs and pressed into rolls.
At first, I found the crudeness of these approximations somewhat comforting, given how much is made of tech companies’ precise and nefarious data-mining. What dirt could Zuckerburg have on me if I’m defined in his eyes by my interest in ichthyology?
Google’s insights were more accurate but also more generic, flagging me as a fan of all kinds of culture, news and “general info”.
If I had a rather laissez-faire approach towards my personal data, it was because I was given the sense I had control over it. That same Ad Preferences page on Facebook presents you with the ads you’ve interacted with, the information that’s informed them, and whether or not your engagements with brands are served up to your friends as a vote of confidence.
There’s even an option, currently in testing, to hide advertisements that relate to two topics: alcohol and parenting.
The requests for permission and the potential for personalisation may give you a sense of agency, but the reality is it’s so piecemeal as to be negligible. Even giving you the option to review your data is a bit self-serving of the platform: by correcting its understanding of your interests (“are you still interested in ichthyology?”), you’re making yourself an easier target.
Facebook’s and Google’s user guides are the friendly face of their advertising services, specifically simplistic so as to be accessible to people of all levels of tech-savvy. Whether or not it’s by design, the effect is reassuring. The apparent transparency gives you the illusion of control over your data and what companies do with it – the true extent of which no one really knows except them.
In May it was revealed that Facebook had touted its ability to identify teenagers at low moments to advertisers, reminiscent of its infamous 2012 experiment in manipulating its users’ emotions. The same month, it was fined €110m (£94m) by the EU for misleading the commission over what it was able to do with WhatsApp users’ data once it took over the messaging service in 2014.
When Facebook has appeared disingenuous about its intentions in the past, it’s no wonder we might not take it at its word. A Huffington Post/YouGov poll of 1000 US adults, conducted early last year, found that 28% did not trust Facebook with their data “at all”; 34% said they did not trust it “much”.
But nothing screams “breakdown in trust” like a public denial of spying. In June, Facebook felt moved to formally reject an academic’s speculation that it was listening in on users’ conversations through their smartphones’ microphones so as to show them relevant ads.
Of course, Facebook can access the microphone, but only for specific purposes, and only if it’s been granted permission – but the wherewithal seems enough for the theory to be floated on social media whenever an ad seems a little on-the-nose.
The coincidences across Facebook and Instagram, like being swamped with ads for probiotics after a passing mention of them on chat, are easier to explain: Facebook owns Instagram. I get pregnancy tests there, too.
It’s hard to overestimate just how significantly advances in targeting have changed the game of digital marketing, and even electioneering. I won’t begrudge you for having better things to do, but it is edifying to read material geared for the other end of the equation: advertisers.
Facebook’s how-to guide for businesses explains how one might market to a “person who likes cooking but doesn’t own a home and/or isn’t a parent”; so, put into practice, that ropy list of stock images suddenly points to a powerful tool.
When social media is so often experienced as a mundanity, a distraction, or back-to-back photos of strangers’ dogs, it can be easy to forget that we’re the product being sold. But why should any thinly-disguised marketplace need to know something so personal as your relationship status, or favourite honorific?
We’re able to access only the tip of the iceberg of our personal data, but we might as well do what we can. Review your privacy settings. Turn off every option and refuse every permission you can.
Facebook calls it “managing ad preferences”. But make no mistake, it’s a token gesture – no one benefits more from this exchange than they do.