Survey: Users Don't Understand Facebook's Advertising System. Some Disagree With Its Classifications
Most people know that many companies collect data about their online activities. Based upon the data collected, companies classify users for a variety of reasons and purposes. Do users agree with these classifications? Do the classifications accurately describe users' habits, interests, and activities?
To answer these questions, the Pew Research Center surveyed users of Facebook. Why Facebook? Besides being the most popular social media platform in the United States, it collects:
"... a wide variety of data about their users’ behaviors. Platforms use this data to deliver content and recommendations based on users’ interests and traits, and to allow advertisers to target ads... But how well do Americans understand these algorithm-driven classification systems, and how much do they think their lives line up with what gets reported about them?"
The findings are significant. First:
"Facebook makes it relatively easy for users to find out how the site’s algorithm has categorized their interests via a “Your ad preferences” page. Overall, however, 74% of Facebook users say they did not know that this list of their traits and interests existed until they were directed to their page as part of this study."
So, almost three quarters of Facebook users surveyed don't know what data Facebook has collected about them, nor how to view it (nor how to edit it, or how to opt out of the ad targeting classifications). According to Wired magazine, Facebook's "Your Ad Preferences" page:
"... can be hard to understand if you haven’t looked at the page before. At the top, Facebook displays “Your interests.” These groupings are assigned based on your behavior on the platform and can be used by marketers to target you with ads. They can include fairly straightforward subjects, like “Netflix,” “Graduate school,” and “Entrepreneurship,” but also more bizarre ones, like “Everything” and “Authority.” Facebook has generated an enormous number of these categories for its users. ProPublica alone has collected over 50,000, including those only marketers can see..."
Now, back to the Pew survey. After survey participants viewed their Ad Preferences page:
"A majority of users (59%) say these categories reflect their real-life interests, while 27% say they are not very or not at all accurate in describing them. And once shown how the platform classifies their interests, roughly half of Facebook users (51%) say they are not comfortable that the company created such a list."
So, about half of persons surveyed use a site whose data collection they are uncomfortable with. Not good. Second, substantial groups said the classifications by Facebook were not accurate:
"... about half of Facebook users (51%) are assigned a political “affinity” by the site. Among those who are assigned a political category by the site, 73% say the platform’s categorization of their politics is very or somewhat accurate, while 27% say it describes them not very or not at all accurately. Put differently, 37% of Facebook users are both assigned a political affinity and say that affinity describes them well, while 14% are both assigned a category and say it does not represent them accurately..."
So, significant numbers of users disagree with the political classifications Facebook assigned to their profiles. Third, its' not only politics:
"... Facebook also lists a category called “multicultural affinity”... this listing is meant to designate a user’s “affinity” with various racial and ethnic groups, rather than assign them to groups reflecting their actual race or ethnic background. Only about a fifth of Facebook users (21%) say they are listed as having a “multicultural affinity.” Overall, 60% of users who are assigned a multicultural affinity category say they do in fact have a very or somewhat strong affinity for the group to which they are assigned, while 37% say their affinity for that group is not particularly strong. Some 57% of those who are assigned to this category say they do in fact consider themselves to be a member of the racial or ethnic group to which Facebook assigned them."
The survey included a nationally representative sample of 963 Facebook users ages 18 and older from the United States. The survey was conducted September 4 to October 1, 2018. Read the entire survey at the Pew Research Center site.
What can consumers conclude from this survey? Social media users should understand that all social sites, and especially mobile apps, collect data about you, and then make judgements... classifications about you. (Remember, some Samsung phone owners were unable to delete Facebook and other mobile apps users. And, everyone wants your geolocation data.) Use any tools the sites provide to edit or adjust your ad preferences to match your interests. Adjust the privacy settings on your profile to limit the data sharing as much as possible.
Last, an important reminder. While Facebook users can edit their ad preferences and can opt out of the ad-targeting classifications, they cannot completely avoid ads. Facebook will still display less-targeted ads. That is simply, Facebook being Facebook to make money. That probably applies to other social sites, too.
What are your opinions of the survey's findings?