• United States



Facebook able to target emotionally vulnerable teens for ads

May 01, 20173 mins
Data and Information SecurityFacebookSecurity

Leaked document reveals Facebook knows when teens feel 'useless,' but the company denies serving targeted ads based on emotions

Facebook is so proud of its algorithms that it conducted research about exploiting posts by kids as young as 14 to show how its algorithms could help advertisers pinpoint emotionally vulnerable moments for the purpose of targeted ads.

The Australian (paywall) got its hands on a 23-page Facebook document, dated in 2017, marked as “Confidential: Internal Only,” and authored by two Australian Facebook executives, Andy Sinn and David Fernandez. While no screenshots were included, the report allegedly explained how Facebook could analyze posts, photos and interactions to help determine the emotional states of 6.4 million “high schoolers,” “tertiary” (college) students and “young Australians and New Zealanders … in the workforce.”

Some of the snippets from the report include how Facebook can determine when young people are interested in “looking good and body confidence” or “working out and losing weight.” While that’s handy for targeting ads, Facebook’s algorithms can also determine in real time “moments when young people need a confidence boost.” According to the report, the document claims, “Monday-Thursday is about building confidence” and “anticipatory emotions;” the weekend is for broadcasting achievements” and “reflective emotions.”

The document also reportedly claims that by monitoring posts, Facebook can estimate when teenagers are feeling “worthless,” “useless,” “defeated,” “stupid,” “overwhelmed,” “insecure,” “stressed,” “anxious,” “nervous” or like “a failure.”

The Facebook document was only to be shared with potential customers under a non-disclosure agreement to highlight how Facebook can harvest “psychological insights.” It was reportedly part of a pitch to a major Australian bank.

While Facebook admitted the research was done and document is real, it denied that it targets advertising based on a user’s emotions and state of mind.

A Facebook spokesperson called the premise of the article “misleading” and stated, “Facebook does not offer tools to target people based on their emotional state. The analysis done by an Australian researcher was intended to help marketers understand how people express themselves on Facebook. It was never used to target ads and was based on data that was anonymous and aggregated.”

Nevertheless, Facebook apologized and said it has “an established process” to review research, but this particular project “did not follow that process.” But if you think about it, the document was not written by two clueless interns who didn’t know the policies; it was written by two Facebook executives, “Facebook Australia’s national agency relationship managers,” who should be well aware of the “established process” of review.

The company claimed the research did not violate privacy or legal protections, but it has opened an investigation “to understand the process failure and improve our oversight. We will undertake disciplinary and other processes as appropriate.”

Granted, the very idea that the emotional state of vulnerable teens, or users of any age, could be exploited to better serve ads is appalling. But it shouldn’t be too shocking, considering this is Facebook. The company doesn’t have the best track record when it comes to privacy, but some people continue to practically live on the site. The ability to use algorithms to determine mood and state of mind and add that to the data Facebook already sells to advertisers would likely be very profitable for the social network. That leads to the question, why are you still using Facebook?

ms smith

Ms. Smith (not her real name) is a freelance writer and programmer with a special and somewhat personal interest in IT privacy and security issues. She focuses on the unique challenges of maintaining privacy and security, both for individuals and enterprises. She has worked as a journalist and has also penned many technical papers and guides covering various technologies. Smith is herself a self-described privacy and security freak.