Have you ever seen a sponsored post on your Facebook timeline and wondered ‘why on Earth does it think I care about that?’ Perhaps, like Darren, you’re a Liverpool fan who is being told about Manchester United games. Perhaps, like me, you’re getting ads trying to sell you car insurance even though you don’t drive.
Many people don’t realise that for any sponsored ad you see on Facebook, you can look into why you’re seeing it. In typical Facebook style, the reasons given are not entirely conclusive, but they are a starting point, and from there you can delete certain ‘interests’ the social media site thinks you hold.
Let’s take an example of a sponsored post from my timeline. I’ve blanked out the name of the advertiser as it’s nothing personal against the company in question – it was just the first example I came across.
If you click the three dots in the top-right corner of the post, several options will appear, one of which is “Why am I seeing this ad?” By clicking that one, you’ll be presented with something like the below.
So apparently, I’m seeing this ad because I’m in the UK and am aged between 18 and 35. Wow, thanks Facebook – that only narrows it down to everyone born between 1984 and 2001 in a nation of 66 million people! Crucially though, Facebook also tells you that there “could also be more factors” influencing why you’re seeing it, so how can we see what these factors are?
Facebook explains some of them here, and they include offline activity, but you’ll also notice that I’m being given two options – to hide ads from this advertiser, and to adjust my preferences. Let’s choose the second option and see what comes up.
Here, I can see a huge assortment of subjects Facebook believes me to be interested in. The above image is just for the ‘Travel, places and events’ section and includes some accurate inclusions and some pretty bizarre ones (Israel? Vancouver Island?). If I explore the sections further, I can see some ridiculously niche topics like ‘Ray (optics)’, ‘Artistic Gymnastics World Cup’ and ‘Sterling silver’ that I have no idea how it’s come up with.
By hovering over any of these, I can delete them from my interests. I can also see why I have this listed in my advertising preferences, although the reason given is always this:
“You have this preference because of your activity on Facebook related to [xxxx]’s Page, for example clicking on one of their ads.”
In a post-GDPR world, I’m surprised Facebook can still get away with being this sketchy. Is it really good enough to say why you “could” be seeing ads, and to simply cite “your activity on Facebook” as a reason for compiling particular interests on a user? Surely Facebook should be able to tell me which ad in particular I clicked, and when I clicked it, to give it the impression that I’m interested in the Artistic Gymnastics World Cup?
In theory at least, by deleting irrelevant interests, you should start to see Facebook ads more suited to you, but it might be an interesting experiment to see what happens if you delete all of them. What ads would you see? Presumably, the interests would start creeping back in as you use Facebook, so if monitored closely, it might give more specific insight into how its algorithms detect them.