On Sunday, some of Facebook’s research into people’s emotional states while using the platform made it to the public. It’s extremely creepy, and once again the company is apologizing for what it always does but doesn’t want users to think about.
A 23-page internal Facebook document from 2017, prepared for a major Australian bank and reported on by The Australian, allegedly detailed Facebook’s large user base of high schoolers and young people. Moreover, it allegedly described how Facebook can work out when kids are feeling “worthless” or otherwise down about themselves. This is concerning, because it opens the possibility of advertisers leveraging Facebook’s massive trove of user data to prey on people’s emotional insecurities.
Facebook issued a statement in the wake of The Australian‘s report, clarifying that the document was just research into user behaviour, not a new advertising tool. Facebook also stated that it has a vetting process for research that was not followed in this case. Even so, Facebook makes these presentations so that advertising partners can craft campaigns that work with how people are using the platform.
The difference between building a tool to serve ads to young people when they’re feeling crappy and telling companies to craft ads that target young people who are feeling crappy seems minor.
Regardless, the whole thing fits a familiar pattern for Facebook: some new horror from the bowels of the company emerges, and Facebook apologizes like it somehow doesn’t reflect the company’s entire business strategy. That is, leveraging detailed insights about people’s lives and state of mind (to the extent that can be divined by their Facebook activities)), for a profit motive.
Most of us have accepted that being online these days means trading our privacy for targeted services, like Google Maps or Amazon recommendations. But there’s been increasing concern that some of these companies, like Uber, are using their detailed insights in a way that disadvantages the user by trading on our cognitive deficiencies. Or, in the case of Facebook’s user insight presentation to a bank, our insecurities.
At the very least, it’s an important reminder that this is all a feature for Facebook, not a bug. The next apology won’t make that any less clear.
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