Have you ever been stopped dead in your tracks as you scroll through Facebook and find targeted advertisements for things you have recently discussed or purchased outside of Facebook? With Facebook’s pervasive privacy scandals, you may start to wonder how these ads are showing up in your feed. Never-ending speculation about eavesdropping swirls around Facebook as it proclaims it takes privacy very seriously. While users can adjust settings, many are unaware of options at their fingertips.
What sources does Facebook use?
While we may never get the “whole truth,” these are sources Facebook lists as components driving advertisements displayed specifically to you. Interestingly, many of these have nothing to do with activity on social media sites.
• Your activity across Facebook and its related companies and products.
Every time you “like” a page or post, that information is tracked to help shape how Facebook perceives and profiles your interests. Information related to which “target audiences” you encompass is also gathered from your Facebook and Instagram profiles as well as places you have “checked into.”
• Your activity on other websites, apps.
Facebook offers a series of business tools to companies interested in reaching target audiences. Each time you visit a website or use an app associated with these companies, your information is directly sent to Facebook to match to your profile on the “back end.” This is how the shoes you were just searching for elsewhere now appear as a Facebook ad.
• Your activity with other businesses.
Similar to the websites and apps, your information may also be uploaded in a “customer list” by any business where you may have signed up for a newsletter, alert, coupon or discount. It even includes purchases at retail stores that can track who made the purchase. Facebook attempts to match this data against profiles based upon phone numbers, email addresses and any other contact information that the customer list and Facebook would have in common. And, voila, the camera you bought in-person is now being advertised in your feed.
• Your location.
Facebook tracks and provides your location data to advertisers based on places mentioned in your Facebook and Instagram profiles, where you connect to the internet, and where you used your phone.
How can I take control of my information?
Even with the eerie accuracy of the advertisements, living in this digital age makes it difficult to escape these “eyes” and “ears” monitoring us. Even if paying cash at the grocery store, a grocery discount card is likely presented to the cashier. Although we can attempt to limit how much information companies have on us by not signing up for newsletters and discounts, it is often more realistic to manage privacy permissions on the voluminous data they already own.
Facebook allows users to customize their “ad preferences” at https://www.facebook.com/ads/preferences. This page allows customization of interests, advertisers, profile information, ad settings, ads to hide, and a tutorial on how Facebook ads work.
Interests: This section displays tiles for organizations and items that Facebook believes you are interested in related to business, news, hobbies, travel, people, food, and more. To remove an interest, click the x in the upper right corner of any tile.
Advertisers: This section displays which advertisers use the “customer lists” described above, which advertisers you have visited in some capacity, and which Facebook ads you have previously clicked. These can also be removed with the x in the corner.
Your information: This section displays your profile fields, and while they can be toggled on or off, the text essentially says Facebook can still use them to associate the profile with categories listed in this section of the preferences page.
Ad Settings: This section allows permission to be granted or denied for inclusion in advertisements from some of the external partner information described above.
Hide Ad Topics: This section allows you to temporarily or permanently hide advertisements related to specific topics.
Eliminating specific ads
Despite changing these settings, you may still wonder how specific ads show up in your feed. When an ad appears, click the three dots at the upper corner of the advertisement and select “Why am I seeing this?” A brief description will appear explaining why you were selected as a target for this advertisement. In the upper right corner under Options, you can choose to “Hide all ads from this advertiser” to prevent any further advertisements from this company.
Although complex algorithms are often shaping the messages fed to us, it is helpful to know we are not completely powerless. Nevertheless, the applicability of this quote from George Orwell’s “1984” is unsettling. “… [T]he telescreen with its never-sleeping ear. They could spy upon you night and day, but if you kept your head you could still outwit them. With all their cleverness they had never mastered the secret of finding out what another human being was thinking.”•
• Deanna Marquez — [email protected] — is a co-owner of the Indianapolis based legal technology company Modern Information Solutions, LLC. Areas of service include traditional IT services, software training, and litigation support including trial presentation services. Opinions expressed are those of the author.