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Dropping the Mic: Is Your Facebook App Listening To You?

Ever chat about something with a friend and then suddenly see related ads in your newsfeed? What’s all that about?
by Quinton O’Reilly | May 21 2018

As far as concerns go, the idea that Facebook listens to your conversations so it can serve you targeted ads has been a prevalent one. This worry is nothing new and in fact, it reached such a point that Mark Zuckerberg had to categorically state that it was a “conspiracy theory” while addressing Congress in April. Facebook had also previously denied this back in 2016.

So, TL;DR: No. But it’s easy to understand why such a myth exists in the first place. Concerns regarding data privacy alongside your experience of targeted ads can lead you to question how exactly the system knew what to show you and what else it picked up on. However, while it is theoretically possible for an app or service to record or listen to you, Facebook doesn’t need to for a couple of reasons — mainly because it has better ways of targeting you.

How Facebook targets you

There are a couple of reasons why Facebook knows how to target you and much of it boils down to the sheer amount of data the company already has on you, both on- and offline. One aspect is how it tracks your browsing habits thanks to trackers like Facebook Pixel and the sheer ubiquity of ‘like’ buttons and plugins on the web. If you think about all the sites you’ve accessed on any of your devices that have a Facebook plugin installed, that’s a significant amount of data gathered. Cross-reference that with other data points like information from third-party brokers and the habits of millions of other people using the site and it’s no surprise that these platforms can be very accurate in predicting which ads to serve up.

According to a recent piece in WIRED, a study published in Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences found it was effective for marketers to target specific personality types, deduced by a single Facebook page a user had liked. “The researchers assumed people who liked the page ‘computers’ were more introverted and targeted ads to them based on that personality type. They found users were significantly more likely to click on the psychologically tailored ads.” This ties into a recent investigation by The Guardian and the Danish Broadcasting Corporation that Facebook assumes sensitive details about its users for advertising purposes.

Think of it this way, a piece of data such as your age demographic can already tell you something about what your interests may be, but start combining it with other data points like your location, interests, etc. and the accuracy increases dramatically. In another piece for WIRED, Antonio Garcia Martinez, a former product manager for Facebook, says that Facebook doesn’t need to listen to you to target ads as it’s already accurate.

“The harsh truth is that Facebook doesn’t need to perform technical miracles to target you via weak signals. It’s got much better ways to do so already. Not every spookily accurate ad you see is a pure figment of your cognitive biases.

“Remember, Facebook can find you on whatever device you’ve ever checked Facebook on. It can exploit everything that retailers know about you, and even sometimes track your in-store, cash-only purchases; that loyalty discount is tied to a phone number or email for a reason.”

Also, the New Statesman did an unscientific test on whether Facebook was serving ads based on a person’s conversations and found that it wasn’t.

The art of coincidence

It’s also worth remembering that we live in our own worlds, so when something related to us happens, we assume it’s down to something involving us. It’s a similar feeling to when a second queue moves faster than the one you’re in. Even when you switch queues, it’s easy to create an association between yourself and an action because of the result.

In a BBC piece exploring whether this happens, David Hand, a mathematics professor from Imperial College London, said that looking for explanations for situations like these is just human nature.

“We are evolutionarily trained to seek explanations,” he told the BBC. “This apparent coincidence occurs and we think there must be [an] explanation, it can’t be chance. But there are so many opportunities for that coincidence to occur.

“If you take something that has a tiny chance of occurring and give it enough opportunities to occur, it inevitably will happen.”

Also, we have a habit of only remembering the incidents that are unusual or novel. Chances are you forget about the numerous irrelevant ads you see on a regular basis — like when you buy something on Amazon and then ads for the same thing follow you around. It becomes noticeable to you as you completed a major action, or if something you’re thinking about recently — like a holiday — is advertised. Due to the fact that it’s already in your mind, something related stands out more when it appears than something that isn’t.

If anything, the fact that Facebook’s ad targeting can bring up such myths highlights just how effective it is. That doesn’t mean you shouldn’t be concerned about how you’re being tracked, but instead, adjust the way you think about privacy.

As Martinez ends his piece: “The short version to all this tinfoil hat theorizing: There’s no way Facebook is eavesdropping on you right now. But it is tracking you in other — no less insidious — ways you’re not aware of. To quote the soldier’s maxim, it’s always the shot you don’t hear that ultimately gets you.”

Suggested Further Reading

1. The Facebook Effect

Kirkpatrick’s book serves as both a historical chronicle of Facebook the company as well as a look into the platform’s effects. From interpersonal communication to media to politics, no aspect of life has gone untouched.

2. The Halo Effect

In writing this book, the author investigated what made businesses successful. Rather than a simple formula, he discovered a range of biases that impacted our perceptions of success and their frequent contradictions with reality.

3. A World Gone Social

If you’re in an established business or looking to start a new one, how do you leverage social media to the fullest extent? That was the guiding question for Coiné and Babbitt in writing this book. They offer insight into the changing business environment and provide actionable advice for navigating this new technological landscape.

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