What Facebook Knows About Us


So I’m reading this opinion piece in The New York Times (Yes, I confess! I read it!) and thinking — hmmm.

Sandy Parakilis, who used to work for Facebook, writes that she knows this behemoth from the inside because she led the effort to fix privacy problems on its developer platform before its 2012 IPO. And she knows for sure, she says, that they don’t give a toss about your privacy. Now, you can judge her arguments on their merits (I’m sure she’s right), but they’re not my point. My point is about this quote:

Facebook knows what you look like, your location, who your friends are, your interests, if you’re in a relationship or not, and what other pages you look at on the web. This data allows advertisers to target the more than one billion Facebook visitors a day. It’s no wonder the company has ballooned in size to a $500 billion behemoth in the five years since its I.P.O.

The more data it has on offer, the more value it creates for advertisers. That means it has no incentive to police the collection or use of that data — except when negative press or regulators are involved. Facebook is free to do almost whatever it wants with your personal information, and has no reason to put safeguards in place.

Okay, no surprise there. Of course I’m especially interested in this, for many reasons, but one of them is that I’d like to see serious, well-constructed research — not idle speculation — that would allow us to form reasonable assessments about whether this kind of targeted advertising on Facebook is effective. Might we be able to form non-totally-random conclusions about the probability that a Russian Facebook-ad buying blitz (or a Trump buying blitz, or a Hillary blitz) persuaded so much as a single voter to change his or her mind about anything, no less the way he or she would vote?

Don’t get distracted by “the Russians,” though — that’s a tangent: I’m just explaining why the question especially interests me. I assume this advertising works, or people wouldn’t spend money on it. But do I actually have any evidence of this? No. Facebook probably does. But does anyone else?

And here’s where I get especially doubtful. I don’t have access to their data, or to the data of other people they’re showing ads, but I do know what ads they show me. Judging by these (which, admittedly, is not the right way to judge, it’s a tiny anecdote in an ocean of data), their targeting is ridiculously bad. I reckon any human, even a child, who reads my Facebook page regularly would do way better. What might we hypothesize from this about the real state of their ability to microtarget ads effectively based on the extensive data they collect?

I put this question on my own Facebook page yesterday and then kicked myself, because obviously if I want a useful answer, Ricochet is the place to ask. The question below is roughly what I wrote. Maybe you guys can at least steer me toward the state-of-the-art academic research, or suggest who might know where I’d find that research.

Given that Facebook does know what I look like, my location, who my friends are, my interests, whether I’m in a relationship, and what other pages I look at on the web — not to mention what I buy — why on earth do they think Claire Berlinski’s going to go big time for “Zanzea Women Plus Harem Loose Pants?” (And I’m actually offended by that. They do have pictures of me, after all. “Woman Plus?”)

Why do they think Claire Berlinski would want to “Discover the London cultural season with the fashion historian Amber Butchart?” Why would she be entranced by “l’interprétation du Tourbillon de la vie par Keira Knightley pour la plus irrésistible des collections de CHANEL Joaillerie,” or keen to know more about “The Incredible Story Of The 61 Year Old Makeup Artist Turned Super Model Who Is Now Changing The Way We View Beauty with Her New Makeup Line?”

What on earth have I ever said or done on Facebook — or anywhere on the Internet, or anywhere in the world, for that matter — that would give anyone, even a machine, the impression that I’m remotely interested in that? Those of you who know me in real life will be doubly doubled-over with laughter at this point. You know that I’m to fashion and makeup as kryptonite is to Superman. I am not only the least chic woman in Paris but in all of the Milky Way. The only reason I don’t regularly head up Mr. Blackwell’s list of “worst-dressed women” is that you have to at least try to be well-dressed to make it. As anyone who knows me in person will confirm, nothing comes between me and my Calvins — just so long as by “Calvins” you mean “some cruddy old pair of sweatpants that isn’t so badly covered in cat yak and cat fur that I’m genuinely worried I’ll be sectioned if I go out to buy a loaf of bread wearing them.” (That’s my standard: “Will I be locked up in a mental hospital if I wear this?”)

As for expensive jewelry, you’ve got to be kidding me. The only valuable jewelry I’ve ever owned, my great-grandmother’s wedding ring, was stolen by Maoist-Kurdish-separatist-PKK-slave-urchins. (Probably.) I’ve never replaced it. Make-up? I’m allergic to it. That’s why you never see me in it, unless I’m on television — and it’s why whenever I’m on television my eyes are so red I look like I’m on PCP. Even if I weren’t allergic to it, I hate it. I own the same stick of concealer I’ve owned since I was fifteen. I keep it in case of a major zit and a television appearance. If I have to put it on, I count the seconds until I can wash it off.

Anyone who knows me at all, in person, would know these are ridiculous ads to show Claire Berlinski. What’s more, as far as I can see, my friends are no more interested in these things than I am. I mean, I don’t know them all in real life, but I sure know that if any friend of mine starts nattering on about celebrity makeup artists, I’ll lapse on the spot into a coma of boredom.

I don’t buy these things. I don’t post articles about them. And I never click on these ads. Because I am just. Not. Interested. So what does Facebook know about me that makes them think I’m not the woman I think I am?

If I wanted Claire Berlinski’s money, and if I had all the data Facebook’s got about her, here’s what I’d do: First, I’d look at all the book reviews she’s read lately and all the books she almost bought — to the point of putting them in the basket — but which she decided, at the last minute, not to buy. (They should easily be able to figure out, too, from my purchasing history and what I’ve done since my last impulse-splurge, that the reason I couldn’t pull the trigger was because I thought, “No, Claire, you can’t buy any new books until you finish reading the last ones you impulse-bought and never so much as opened.”)

If I were Facebook I’d be showing me ads, over and over again, not only for those books, but for the ones they could easily figure out — based on what I keep reading and writing and posting about — that I’d find near-irresistible. Why are they showing me Oversized Harem Pants when they could be tempting me with this?

I mean, you guys know me well enough that you know full well that if I see that ad often enough, I’ll crack, right? It’s so obvious. I’ve given them so much information that adds up to, “Show her that ad. Over and over. She can’t hold out more than a week. She’ll hit the button.”

One of my worries, based on the amount of data they clearly do have about me (because I no longer make even a desultory effort to keep it from them, or anyone) is that they actually do know something about me that I don’t. I mean, could they be right? You know how Facebook can supposedly figure out that you’re pregnant even before you do? What do they know about me and “Plus-Sized Loose Harem Pants” that I don’t? Are they checking out the number of times I order pizza and counting the minutes I spend reading The New York Times’ latest pumpkin pie recipes and figuring, “She’s gonna need them soon enough?”

Is there any way they could be checking my photos out against my friends’ profiles, and adding it up with my Twitter feed, weighing it up with time I spend almost-buying books on Amazon, looking at all the sites on the Internet where I waste my days flipping through article after article desultorily, and figuring, “Typical. Age 49. By February she won’t be able to keep her (increasingly fat) fingers off ‘l’interprétation du Tourbillon de la vie par Keira Knightley pour la plus irrésistible des collections de CHANEL Joaillerie.’ Start priming her now, because she’s so headed there. Didn’t you see the way she gobbled up that article about Martin Schulz’s fight for the future of the SPD? Not one woman in that demographic who read that whole boring article from start to finish failed to buy the Chanel jewelry within six months. And she devoured that “Stop sugarcoating the housing market” article in the Economist (which she read not just once, but twice), and she nearly — but didn’t — post it to her Facebook page. That’s solid. We’ve run this scenario often enough to know for sure that 87.3 percent of the white women in Paris with seven cats who read that article (twice) and who nearly (but didn’t) post it to Facebook will buy anything Keira Knightley flogs. Get Keira to sell her something expensive, too: She’ll be in for something big, don’t bother with the ads for a revolutionary new cat litter box or a microwave, no matter how much she thinks she needs a new microwave.” (And surely they know I need that: How many more times to I have to search “why is my microwave making that scary noise” and “microwave+consumer reports” before they get the hint?) But they never show me the ads. “Oh, and guys: check out her photos: The makeup? Seriously? We’d be doing her (and the world) a mitzvah if we got her to do something about that oily T-zone, that is is so totally unnecessary. Send in the 61-Year-Old-Makeup-Artist. She’ll crack. After all, she did post that article about the NSA’s data trove on Americans — twice! — and all the data tells us that women who read Conor Friedersdorff when they’ve got really bad insomnia and worry about the NSA hoovering up metadata on Americans just cannot resist make-up tips from a 61-year-old supermodel. Odds on a purchase: 77.86 percent.”

So am I doomed to buy this stuff? How exactly do they know?

And what on earth do they know — it’s clearly something I don’t — that made them show these ads to me today?

I mean … they do have access to information I don’t. So how do you imagine I should bring this up? “Honey, you seem great to me, but Facebook thinks you’re emotionally unavailable. And it kind of sounds like they think this thing we’ve got going here is a dumpster-fire-in-prospect. That’s a little worrying, since they know what you do when I’m not around. And I don’t. Maybe we should talk?”

But seriously — and some of you guys would probably have pretty good insight into the state of Facebook’s AI and the way these algorithms are apt to work — what on earth is keeping them from taking the information about me that any human who looks at my Facebook page would, putting it together with all the other information they have about what I read, what I buy, and where my attention lingers, and showing me ads that I would find utterly irresistible?

I bet every one of you could guess what ads might tempt me to push the button. Give it a try in the comments. And I bet none of you would think, “Oversized Harem Pants.” And you’d all be right. 

What ads do you see on your Facebook pages — or on the other parts of the Internet where these ads are supposedly so perfectly integrated with your personal data, in such a diabolically cunning way, as to to make you unable to resist clicking on them?

Are they things you might ever buy? Do they even make sense?

If not, why do you think that is?


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  1. Nick H Coolidge
    Nick H

    Jules PA (View Comment):

    Nick H (View Comment):

    Phil Turmel (View Comment):
    It’s not just cookies. The collection of techniques is generally called browser fingerprinting, and is remarkably effective without cookies or IP addresses. With cookies, you are 100% trackable. With IP address and browser fingerprint, you are very nearly 100% trackable.

    For those who want to know more about browser fingerprinting (and how to limit tracking), I’d suggest https://panopticlick.eff.org/ as a starting point. It will tell you how unique your browser fingerprint is. There are also some good browser plugins like Ghostery that will block most obnoxious trackers. Combine it with an ad-blocker and your internet experience will be greatly improved.

    Dies this work on a phone too?

    She stupidly asked.


    It’s not stupid at all. Browsers on a phone do have a fingerprint, and as they’ve gotten more advanced the fingerprints have become more unique. Ten years ago the unique aspect was just that you were browsing from the phone in the first place, but all those phone browsers looked exactly the same. Now it’s the opposite.

    Unfortunately it’s harder to block ads on phones. If you get an Android and are able to unlock and root the phone (which has its own significant risks and downsides), then you can do it. I’ve done it in the past but currently just put up with the ads.

    • #91
  2. Snirtler Inactive

    Bereket Kelile (View Comment):

    Snirtler (View Comment):

    Can you say more about the $10-20 CPM for FB ads? Is that across industries, for a particular industry, for political ads in the US, or whatever?

    Sorry for the delayed response. I’m not sure how it breaks down across industries. It has more to do with the content of the ad, the audience targeted, and when the ads were running. Since it’s an observed figure it would be good to hear from marketers’ experiences in other industries.

    @bereketkelile, no problem. Thanks for replying. It’s helpful to know from your comment above what factors matter.

    • #92
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