Pew Study on Facebook Users Shows Majority Don’t Know That Facebook Tracks Their Interests for Targeting Ads

Paul Hitlin and Lee Rainie, Pew Research Center:

Facebook makes it relatively easy for users to find out how the site’s algorithm has categorized their interests via a “Your ad preferences” page. Overall, however, 74% of Facebook users say they did not know that this list of their traits and interests existed until they were directed to their page as part of this study.

When directed to the “ad preferences” page, the large majority of Facebook users (88%) found that the site had generated some material for them. A majority of users (59%) say these categories reflect their real-life interests, while 27% say they are not very or not at all accurate in describing them. And once shown how the platform classifies their interests, roughly half of Facebook users (51%) say they are not comfortable that the company created such a list.

Facebook issued this statement to The Verge regarding Pew’s research:

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.

Allow me to translate from outright lies to the obvious truth:

We do not want people to understand how our ad settings and controls work. If more people understood what we track about them and how to control it, more people would block it, and we’d make less money.

Skim the comments on The Verge story and most of them are along the lines of the first one: “You’d have to be pretty dense…” — i.e. that the majority of Facebook users who don’t understand what Facebook is doing to track them are stupid. This reminds me of arguments about user interfaces. When regular people are confused by or don’t understand something, there’s a segment of the tech savvy world that sees the problem as the people being too stupid. The real problem is that the products are too hard to understand. The problem with users not understanding what Facebook tracks about them is not that the people are stupid, it’s that Facebook purposefully obfuscates what they do to keep regular people in the dark.

Thursday, 17 January 2019