Facebook Opens Up A Little About The Very Many (Many Many) Ways It Targets You

Image courtesy of Facebook

Facebook is, primarily, an advertising business. It doesn’t just want you to grudgingly put up with its ads, and it certainly doesn’t want you to block them. No, it wants you to love its ads, to embrace its ads, and to beg to be targeted to selectively.

Ads have been a particularly touchy subject for Facebook in recent weeks. First, the company reworked its code to circumvent ad-blockers, couching it to users as an educational move. Because they give you tools to manage your experience (within their boundaries), Facebook said, you wouldn’t need your pesky little ad-blocker anymore!

Ad-blocking companies responded swiftly and predictably: within 48 hours, they announced a work-around and had it up and ready for users to implement. And so the arms race continues.

Of course, the game of cat-and-mouse coding can (and probably will) continue infinitely. So the biggest tool in Facebook’s toolbox is this: to make you not want to block their ads at all. And to that end, they’re continuing their campaign of relentlessly optimistic education, to teach 1.7 billion people how great it is to be selectively advertised to.

Facebook’s new, updated ad education portal basically gives users a high-level rundown of the data points that Facebook assembles and then sells to advertisers in order to make you a target. These include things you do on Facebook, like…

  • Pages you like
  • Pages your friends like
  • Information from your profile (age, affiliations)
  • Places you check in
  • Places your friends check you in

Facebook, however, also has a huge, robust network of ways it cam track you across the web and on your phone. So it can also make judgements about you based on, for example:

  • Pages you’ve viewed on any device
  • Other apps you’ve got on your phone
  • Places your devices have been online
  • Purchases you’ve made online
  • Purchases you’ve made offline
  • Information about you from loyalty/rewards programs

The full list of data points Facebook can assemble, across the entire internet and every device you use on it is, frankly, huge. The Washington Post threw together a list of 98 such points, which is far from comprehensive but begins to give you the idea.

You can view your own ad preferences to see what it is Facebook thinks will interest you, and you can clear them out as often as you want. (Like Prometheus‘s liver, they will regenerate based on your continuing activity online and off.)

As you view them, Facebook will tell you why it thinks they interest you. Some will be on target: That yours truly should appear to have an interest in “Consumerist” based on internet activity is, well, to be expected. Likewise for “history,” which is in my profile as my undergraduate major.

Others, not so much, as we’ve seen amongst ourselves and from readers. Perhaps you are one of the 56 million people apparently interested in “Delaware’s At-Large Congressional District”? (Delaware, overall, has just under one million residents.)

Likewise, when you see an ad on Facebook, you can click the little X in the upper right-hand corner to see how you were chosen for that ad. Some of these are, again, more targeted and more informative than others. For example, on my work computer this morning Facebook showed me ads for AT&T small business services, and said about it: attsmallbizFB

You can also choose, on an individual basis, to opt out of certain business affiliations and displayed ads.

However, realistically, there is almost nothing you can do to opt out of being part of Facebook’s ad machine. Everything you block is only a thing you no longer see, not a thing you no longer get tracked by. Even if you do not have a Facebook account and do not use the app or website on any device, they’re still using their tracking tech on you online.

Unless you live off the grid in a cave and use only cash, you are part of this network. And that’s why, although Facebook would really prefer you embrace that fact, it doesn’t even matter to them that much if you don’t. They’re already there.