Reply All: #109 Is Facebook Spying on You?
November 2, 2017 6:17 AM - Subscribe

This year we've gotten one question more than any other from listeners: is Facebook eavesdropping on my conversations and showing me ads based on the things that I say? This week, Alex investigates.Further ReadingOur guide to keep Facebook from following you around the internet can be found at http://replyall.limo/donttrackme .Facebook's official statement that it is not listening to users. Facebook's Rob Goldman (no relation) denying the same thing.
posted by Tevin (16 comments total)
 
Did you check your categories? Because I totally did. Not many surprises but the "American politics: very liberal" made me chuckle.
posted by Tevin at 6:18 AM on November 2


Alex wouldn't have convinced me either. I'm sure most of this phenomenon is confirmation bias but it's happened to me at least once and it's c r e e p y .

My categories are surprisingly empty, just a bunch related to how I access FB like "Facebook Access (Network Type): Wifi" and a few oddballs like "Close friends with expats" but it's pretty sparse.
posted by yellowbinder at 9:23 AM on November 2


. . . huh. Facebook thinks I'm black (I'm not, but grew up in a predominantly black area). This explains a few things.
posted by dinty_moore at 9:46 AM on November 2


More confusingly, it also thinks I'm really into Stark County, Ohio, which doesn't even really fit with the rest of my profile.
posted by dinty_moore at 9:52 AM on November 2 [1 favorite]


They also think I am black, even though my profile identifies me as Jewish and Irish-American.

Maybe they bought my purchasing history. I used to do a blog about Blaxploitation films. I'm Facebook friends with Jack Hill. Maybe I'll ask him if they think he's black too.

I don't get served any interesting ads as a result of this, though. Like, I used to subscribe to African-American mail order catalogues because it exposed me to all sorts of cultural things I wouldn't know about otherwise. I actually woundn't mind if Facebook started showing me that sort of thing again.
posted by maxsparber at 11:09 AM on November 2


I just noticed that the models they use in ads I receive are black. I guess subconsciously I just thought Twitter knew I get offended when there isn't more diverse representation , but, in retrospect, that's a weird thing to think Facebook knows about you.
posted by maxsparber at 11:27 AM on November 2


I checked my categories, and they were pretty spot on. I ended up removing all of them, but then I realized that it probably didn't do much. Disabling the customization of what they show you doesn't stop them from collecting information on you, and its not like they're going to stop putting ads into my feed. I wouldn't be surprised if they keep collecting data on you even after you close your account, just in case you come back one day.
posted by noneuclidean at 4:47 PM on November 2 [1 favorite]


Facebook thinks I'm black and have housemates, but I'm pretty impressed at how effectively I've been able to remain an enigma to Facebook. The free interests it had for me were hilarious. Apparently I'm interested in "bleach" and "life". But I'm also interested in "safety", so it's incumbent upon me to mention that bleach is not terribly compatible with life.
posted by soren_lorensen at 7:37 PM on November 2 [2 favorites]


I'm sure most of this phenomenon is confirmation bias

I was kinda thinking they should have talked about this. Like, for every instance where someone reports a super fast correlation for an ad appearing after talking about something, how many ads do they see that don't connect?

I found the categories thing a while ago. I remember them as being fairly accurate but not representing anything really important about me. Like, if someone were to try sending me ads based on the categories I saw there they were likely to be very disappointed in my non-response. I deleted all the categories just to fuck with FB.
(I just looked again and only one category had come back, "away from home town." Which is I guess true in that I grew up near Kansas City and moved to Chicago, but so long ago I really would not call KC my "home town.")

It's possible this has happened to me and I've never seen it - between AdBlock, AdBlock Plus, and a Facebook specific extension called Social Fixer, I see almost no ads on Facebook at all. Outside of FB, I did notice recently when I had turned ad blockers off for a moment and looked over some stuff at a clothing brand website and then went to a news site, the news site had a bunch of ads from that very brand. Which did make me think about how often that tracking stuff is happening invisibly to me - just because I have ad blockers doesn't mean the ad servers aren't still following me.
posted by dnash at 8:15 AM on November 3 [1 favorite]


I totally agree about confirmation bias, and I'm also surprised that it wasn't brought up.

I think it's funny that Facebook allows you to remove your categories...you're basically helping them target you.
posted by radioamy at 12:59 PM on November 3 [1 favorite]


I think the idea of the categories is that it presents an illusion of control for the users; they can delete them and it really makes no difference because they only represent part of the information they've collected on you.

Anyway, this was a pretty interesting episode. I really, really doubt FB is listening to people's speech (because, as the episode points out, they don't need to), but on the other hand, it's not an idea I'd care to persuade anybody of. It's one of the few things I can think of that I believe to be false but would prefer more people thought to be true.
posted by skewed at 1:44 PM on November 3


Seems like leaving off one of the goofy caller interviews and mentioning confirmation bias would have been the responsible way to report on this story.

On reading previous comments before submitting. . . I see I'm not the first to point this out.
posted by eotvos at 8:07 PM on November 4


The first half of this episode was a great explanation of the detailed personal ad targeting Facebook does. I'm terrified of what happens when this kind of profiling is used extensively by political campaigns and by gerrymandering scoundrels. It sort of was already, the Trump campaign in 2016 (including Cambridge Analytica). Most notoriously to target voter suppression ads to African Americans in swing states.

Here's a link to Facebook's preferences settings; click "Your information / Your categories" to see the categories they talk about. They definitely know way, way more about you and I'm surprised they're not showing more like their guess on your income level. Here's similar views for Google and Twitter.

Also new article of relevance: How Facebook Figures Out Everyone You've Ever Met.
posted by Nelson at 5:31 PM on November 7


Facebook thinks I'm black and a frequent international traveler. (I'm not either, but I do post about racial justice and studied abroad a few years ago.) Other than that, I've got Away From Family/Hometown, Gmail Users, Console Gamers, US Politics (very liberal), Close friends of expats (???), and Housemate-Based Households.

So basically Facebook knows as much about me as my parents do. Maybe less. My own parents don't think I'm a different race from them.
posted by scruffy-looking nerfherder at 8:30 PM on November 7


Some additional follow-up from Lifehacker.

Reply All people: it was initially amusing, then infuriating as each person went unconvinced. As much as it may as amuse the team to see Alex get frustrated and to have PJ mock him (and I am generally amused by this sort of thing, too), you dropped the ball on analysis.
posted by maudlin at 8:21 AM on November 8


Ok, the categories are actually pretty amusing. Facebook thinks I like Burning Man. Yikes!
posted by radioamy at 1:31 PM on November 8


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