Targeted ads may be the price of using social media

Noah Thornburgh

Social media companies are set on consolidating their user bases, which means targeted advertisements will get more intrusive as more user data is funneled to advertisers. Facebook is planning to merge three of its subsidiary messaging platforms by 2020, according to a Jan. 25 report in the New York Times. These services — WhatsApp, Instagram and Messenger — have a total of 2.3 billion users; the resulting network will undoubtedly multiply the pool of data for advertisers to mine.

Targeted advertisements have become normalized as the price of social media. Appearing on the feeds and sidebars of apps and websites, these ads are the result of calculating demographics and interests of individual users in order to attract a click, a constant reminder of how little privacy is granted on the web.

The amount of data Facebook and Google stores is shocking. Both sites allow users to see how they’ve been tracked; particularly scary are Google’s location tracking and Facebook’s phone call and message history. Privacy concerns initiated by breaches in these data stores resulted in a two day Congressional hearing of Facebook CEO Mark Zuckerberg in April 2018. Historic as it was, the hearing has had little impact on Facebook’s popularity and larger data tracking concerns.

“That’s all social media — we know we’re being tracked,” Erick Mejia, first-year graduate student in accounting, said. “It’s just something we have to live with. We know we’re being tracked, and it’s all being used to sell us things.”

He said he accepts the loss of privacy, but he’s not entirely comfortable with it. He said he is unsettled when an ad appears related to something he said, not something he looked up.

 

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The ‘listening’ complaint is common, and generally where people get most uncomfortable with data tracking. Zuckerberg, during the April hearing, officially denied that Facebook accesses users’ microphones for advertising purposes.

This means those ads that seem to be related to something overheard are much creepier. The data being tracked is deep enough to allow advertisers to predict users’ conversations. If an ad shows up about a product a user has mentioned in conversation but the user’s microphone isn’t listening in, then advertisers were able to predict the user’s interest in said product purely from online data.

“For the most part, I don’t necessarily care,” senior nursing major Ria Samsongwong said. “Only those times I think or say something and it pops up, that’s when I get upset.”

Those intrusively predictive ads are only going to get worse as technology improves and companies grow. Perhaps social media users will leave the more it appears they’ve lost their privacy. Otherwise, user privacy will continue to erode as the unfortunate price of social media.