Pew: People Know Little About How Facebook Uses Them

(CN) – Nearly three-quarters of Facebook users don’t know how their data are being used to inform online advertisers, according to a Pew research poll released Wednesday.

If you ever used the internet to research buying or renting a new home, maybe you noticed the Zillow or Allstate insurance ads suddenly up in the peripherals of your social media news feed. Maybe you’ve been offered deals on medieval-inspired sweatshirts, floral print shoes, or healthy meal options. 

As online advertisers invest more money into narrowly tailored ads, commercial websites – including social media and news platforms – are gathering more user data. So the Pew Research Center asked, “How well do Americans understand these algorithm-driven classification systems, and how much do they think their lives line up with what gets reported about them?”

Like many users, Pew turned to Facebook for answers, polling 963 American adult users throughout September 2018.

Facebook’s 2.27 billion active users make it the third most visited website globally, right after Google and YouTube. On the one hand, Facebook offers advertisers tools to micro-target audiences; on the other hand, Pew said the platform “holds a special and meaningful place in the social and civic universe of its users.”

Despite the major role advertisements play in the platform’s operations, 74 percent of users told Pew that they were learning about the list of traits Facebook compiled about them for the first time when asked to participate in the study.

Users can click on “Your Ad Preferences” to learn more about the details Facebook has gleaned from their online activities. Each users’ ad profile is unique to them: Users who are more active or have had an account for more than five years are likely to have connections, topics which inform advertisers about user preferences and may include travel, news and entertainment or people.

Users have been able to access their analytics since 2014, though Facebook does not publicize how many people look.   

Facebook’s algorithms create categories based on user interactions directly with content on Facebook but also with content on other websites visited. The Facebook pixel tool allows commercial websites to view data from Facebook users who also visit their websites; Facebook additionally offers the Offline Conversations optimization tool to track user behavior offline.

How exactly the data is compiled, however, remains secret sauce.

“Typically, the precise workings of the proprietary algorithms that perform these analyses are unknowable outside the companies who use them,” said Pew senior researcher Paul Hiltin in the report. “At the same time, it is clear the process of algorithmically assessing users and their interests involves a lot of informed guesswork about the meaning of a user’s activities and how those activities add up to elements of a user’s identity.”

When Pew asked users to reflect on their ad profile, 59 percent reported that the listings accurately reflected their real-life interests. When it came to political and multicultural affiliations, users also generally agreed with Facebook’s assessment.

Not all users are labeled with political designations, but of those polled by Pew, 34 percent called themselves liberal, 35 percent conservative and 29 percent moderate.

One in five Facebook users were assigned a “multicultural affinity,” referring to certain ethnic groups they may identify with, regardless of whether they are actually part of that group. A majority of users reported that they identify themselves as part of the group Facebook assigned to them, while 37 percent of users said they did not strongly identify with it.

Facebook maintains more data makes for better ads.

“We want people to understand how our ad settings and controls work. That means better ads for people,” said Facebook spokesperson Joe Osborne in an email. “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.” Still, a little more than half of users polled by Pew reported they were uncomfortable with Facebook creating a list of categories about them. But roughly the same number – 59 percent – said the categories accurately portray who they are in real life.

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