Online advertisers target Facebook users based on information Facebook claims not to share, according to two new research papers reported on in today’s New York Times. The most jarring of the findings indicates that online marketers “cater” to users based on criteria like sexual preference, despite the fact that Facebook does not make such information public, focusing ads for things like gay bars and nursing degrees specifically for homosexual men. Put directly by the Times: “If users click on such an ad and visit the advertiser’s site, they are essentially revealing to the advertiser that they are gay.” The future is now and it is heteronormative.
The Times reports:
The researchers created six nearly identical Facebook accounts, three for men and three for women. The one significant difference was that in one account for each gender, the profile specified that the user was “interested in” people of the same sex.
Not surprisingly, the different accounts were shown different ads, because advertisers can specify what types of people they want to reach on the site. In particular, the accounts that appeared to belong to gay people received ads for things like gay bars.
But more worrisome are the ads, such as the one for a nursing degree, that do not seem to be explicitly tied to one’s sexuality. To assume, as they say, makes an “ass” out of “u” and “me.”
“The danger with such ads, unlike the gay bar ad where the target demographic is blatantly obvious, is that the user reading the ad text would have no idea that by clicking it he would reveal to the advertiser both his sexual preference and a unique identifier,” the researchers wrote.
And the larger implications, besides insensitivity and stereotyping, are quite obvious:
“This is yet another example that there are privacy landmines built into Facebook,” said Christopher Soghoian, a privacy advocate and research fellow at the Center for Applied Cybersecurity Research at Indiana University. “Even if the company is trying to do the right thing, when they have this many users, they are going to be a target for bad guys.”
The web, as usual, has already figured this one out: