Facebook probably knows more about you than your own family, and the company often uses these type of insights to help sell you products. The best—or worst!—new example of this comes from the newspaper The Australian, which says it got its hands on some leaked internal Facebook documents.
The 23-page document allegedly revealed that the social network provided detailed data about teens in Australia—including when they felt “overwhelmed” and “anxious”—to advertisers. The creepy implication is that said advertisers could then go and use the data to throw more ads down the throats of sad and susceptible teens.
From the (paywalled) report:
By monitoring posts, pictures, interactions and internet activity in real-time, Facebook can work out when young people feel “stressed”, “defeated”, “overwhelmed”, “anxious”, “nervous”, “stupid”, “silly”, “useless”, and a “failure”, the document states.
A presentation prepared for one of Australia’s top four banks shows how the $US415 billion advertising-driven giant has built a database of Facebook users that is made up of 1.9 million high schoolers with an average age of 16, 1.5 million tertiary students averaging 21 years old, and 3 million young workers averaging 26 years old.
Detailed information on mood shifts among young people is “based on internal Facebook data”, the document states, “shareable under non-disclosure agreement only”, and “is not publicly available”. The document was prepared by two of Facebook’s top local executives, David Fernandez and Andy Sinn, and includes information on when young people exhibit “nervous excitement”, and emotions related to “conquering fears”.
In a statement given to the newspaper, Facebook confirmed the practice and claimed it would do better, but did not disclose whether the practice exists in other places like the US. “We have opened an investigation to understand the process failure and improve our oversight. We will undertake disciplinary and other processes as appropriate,” a spokesperson said.
It’s worth mentioning that Facebook frequently uses Australia to test new features before rolling them out to other parts of the world. (It recently did this with the company’s Snapchat clone.) It’s unclear if that’s what was happening here, but The Australian says Facebook wouldn’t tell them if “the practice exists elsewhere.”
The new leaked document raises ethical questions—yet again—about Facebook’s ability to manipulate the moods and feelings of its users. In 2012, the company deliberately experimented on its users’ emotions by tampering with the news feeds of nearly 700,000 people to see whether it could make them feel different things. (Shocker: It apparently could!) There was also the 61-million-person experiment in 2010 that concluded Facebook was able to impact real-world voting behavior. It’s not hard to imagine, given the profound power and reach of the social network, how it could use feelings of inadequacy to help sell more products and advertisements.
Another problem here is that, much like everything else in Facebook’s world, both the experimentation and the results are opaque. As The Australian story points out, the leaked documents says the information on teenage mood shifts was “based on internal Facebook data” and “is not publicly available.” That’s because the ad sales system is a closely guarded secret, and much of where Facebook’s $446.07 billion valuation comes from. It’s not wrong for Facebook to keep its business strategies secret, but when the company is apparently serving up vulnerable teenagers to hungry advertisers, things get, uh, tricky.
Update 1:14 P.M. ET: Facebook said in a statement, “The analysis done by an Australian researcher was intended to help marketers understand how people express themselves on Facebook. It was never used to target ads and was based on data that was anonymous and aggregated.”