Update 1/25: This post has been updated to include Mark Zuckerberg’s January 25 op-ed.
In the Wall Street Journal Friday morning, Facebook CEO Mark Zuckerberg defended his company’s ad targeting practices in a 1,000-word op-ed called “The Facts About Facebook.”
The piece is a strange move for a CEO of a publicly traded company, and there’s no real explanation for why Zuckerberg didn’t use a company channel or a press release to make such a statement. In addition, it makes the somewhat convoluted argument that the internet “allows far greater transparency and control over what ads you see” and that on Facebook in particular, “you have control over what information [is used] to show you ads.” Zuckerberg explains that Facebook does not have a business incentive to sell information directly to advertisers or to serve up clickbait and nonsense notifications to artificially inflate engagement.
He insists that much of the information Facebook collects about its users — which is a lot! — is used not for advertising but for “security and operating our services.”
The op-ed is an apparent response to a study released by Pew Research Center on January 16, in which 74 percent of Americans said they did not know that Facebook maintained a list of their traits and interests in order to sell ads. These lists — which are viewable in Facebook users’ account settings — are separate from things you’ve “liked” or directly interacted with on the site; instead, they’re inferred categorizations about your politics, your upcoming life events, and where you live in relation to the people you love.
Once researchers directed them to their personalized lists, only 59 percent said the categories they had been sorted into were accurate, and 51 percent said they were not comfortable with the list’s existence.
In a statement issued to The Verge immediately following the study’s release, a Facebook spokesperson wrote, “We want people to understand how our ad settings and controls work. That means better ads for people. While we and the rest of the online ad industry need to do more to educate people on how interest-based advertising works and how we protect people’s information, we welcome conversations about transparency and control.” This is supposedly why Facebook launched a data privacy educational pop-up for several days (in winter, in midtown Manhattan), coming off a year of back-to-back scandals.
The results of the Pew survey made the rounds widely on the internet, typically under headlines questioning how Americans could possibly still not know what seems like the most familiar and grating adage: “When a product is free, you’re the product.” It would appear baffling, given that Facebook is also the least trusted of our tech overlords, and new conspiracy theories pop up around it every day, largely due to its fixation on total secrecy. If Americans believe Facebook is capable of anything, why don’t they think it’s capable of the most obvious thing?
But The Verge’s Casey Newton made a comforting counterpoint in his nightly Facebook newsletter that week, writing, “I tend to view this data more optimistically. A high school career spent staying up late and catching ‘Jaywalking’ segments on The Tonight Show (don’t @ me) instilled a healthy skepticism that a large group of Americans could ever be assumed to know anything.”
In the Pew numbers, he points out, we can also see that 26 percent of Americans do understand — at least roughly — the way that Facebook interest targeting works. (As in, they at least grasp the fact that their interactions with people and things on the site are being analyzed, and for some business purpose.) That works out to close to 56 million people, which is nothing to sneeze at considering it’s been just over a decade since any of this became an issue at all.
Newton finds further comfort in a Pew study released last September that showed 26 percent of Americans had deleted the Facebook app from their phones (44 percent of people ages 18 to 29), 42 percent had “taken a break” for substantial periods of time, and 54 percent had gone through the trouble of fiddling with privacy settings.
On top of that, picking through the data, there’s maybe a little hope that Facebook isn’t even that good at sorting people. Only 57 percent of respondents who were sorted by “cultural affinity” said they belonged in the group they were assigned. (Facebook has only three: African American, Asian American, and Hispanic.) 39 percent said they were sorted incorrectly.
Though popular conception of Facebook views it as a hotbed of political debate, and it’s been the pawn of political propagandists the world over, the platform was only able to assign 51 percent of users a “political affinity.” Of those users, 73 percent said the categorization was “very or somewhat accurate” and 27 percent said it was “not very” or “not at all” accurate.
A lucky 11 percent of respondents went to look at their ad preferences page and found that they had been so confusing or inactive that they hadn’t been categorized at all — a type of user whom Facebook addresses saying, “You have no behaviors.” What a beautiful mantra for those who are reconsidering their relationship with a monopolist corporation in the new year!
Notably, whether Zuckerberg’s assurances in Friday’s op-ed are based in truth or not is broadly impossible to answer, and the widespread paranoia it purports to soothe is fueled primarily by that lack of information. Zuckerberg acknowledges this briefly, writing, “We’re all distrustful of systems we don’t understand,” but does little to say how Facebook could be more transparent in the future.
(And the choice to publish the piece in the Wall Street Journal doesn’t exactly imply an interest in reaching the company’s average user.)
It’s notable, too, that this piece was published the same morning as two big news stories about the company that paint it in a less favorable, or at least less forthcoming, light: Reveal News put up a report about a class-action lawsuit focused on Facebook’s practice of encouraging kids to rack up hundreds or thousands of dollars of charges in mobile games using their parents’ credit cards. The New York Times also revealed Facebook’s plan to integrate the messaging platforms of Instagram and WhatsApp with that of its main app.
The latter move some reporters have pointed out may be little more than insurance against the Federal Trade Commission moving to break up the company, but of course, we won’t know until we know. And that’s how Zuckerberg wants it.
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