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Most Facebook Users Still Unclear About How the Hell Targeted Ads Work: Pew Survey

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There are plenty of very good reasons Facebook users should be extremely skeptical of the information the social media platform collects about them following years of data and privacy scandals. But even as the company continues to push its “transparencynarrative, many of its users still do not understand how their information is being used by the company, and specifically with regard to targeted advertising, a Pew Research Center survey has found.

A survey of U.S. adult Facebook users found that 74 percent were unaware of an “ad preferences” page listing “interests” the site has collected to advertise to them, Pew reported in its analysis published Wednesday. Polling 963 Facebook users aged 18 and up between Sept. 4 and Oct. 1 of last year, the survey found that slightly more than half of survey respondents reported being “not very or not at all comfortable” with how the company amassed the list of apparent interest categories. (The survey has a margin of error of plus or minus 3.4 percentage points.) Per the report:

[E]ven with a majority of users noting that Facebook at least somewhat accurately assesses their interests, about half of users (51%) say they are not very or not at all comfortable with Facebook creating this list about their interests and traits. This means that 58% of those whom Facebook categorizes are not generally comfortable with that process. Conversely, 5% of Facebook users say they are very comfortable with the company creating this list and another 31% declare they are somewhat comfortable.


Facebook uses a number of methods to target ads to individual users, including pages liked by users and their friends, location-data sharing, and more vaguely, “information from your Facebook and Instagram profile,” per Facebook’s ad policy page. Apps and websites can also share information about users with the social media behemoth through “like” and “share” buttons or through a Facebook “pixel,” a piece of code that allows Facebook to collect information about user activity on other websites that implement it.

Rob Goldman, Facebook’s VP of Ad Products claimed in a blog post in 2017 that “[p]rotecting people’s privacy is central to how we’ve designed our ad system” (the claim is also plastered verbatim on Facebook’s ad policy page). Further, he wrote, users “should be able to easily understand who is showing ads to you and see what other ads that advertiser is running.”


But Pew’s survey indicates that in spite of all the noise Zuckerberg and other company heads have made about Facebook having The Best of Intentions, many of its users remain largely in the dark about how the company is collecting information about them. And moreover, upon learning of those practices, people aren’t super psyched about them.

In response to the survey, Facebook told the Verge in a statement that it “want[s] people to understand how our ad settings and controls work.” Facebook evidently has a hell of a lot of work to do if it intends to make good on that claim.

[Pew Research Center via the Verge]