It’s fairly common knowledge that Facebook feeds you ads depending on what your interests are and what you’re browsing online – but these ads may be much more insidious than you think.
Facebook ads have been accused of encouraging fake news and reinforcing discriminatory, harmful stereotypes that leave users feeling “anxious” and “powerless”, new research has found.
A study by Monash University researchers found that Facebook’s hyper-targeted advertisements, driven by data collected on the individual, allows the social media juggernaut to evade accountability for potentially harmful impacts.
How do ‘dark ads’ work?
In older forms of advertising, such as that on billboards or ads in newspapers and magazines, this was all in the public domain and can be viewed, collected and studied.
And even with radio and TV, the same is true.
But as people spend more time on apps on their phones, where content is tailored to the individual, these ads similarly become personalised and targeted.
And because no one else ever sees these ‘dark ads’ other than the person it’s delivered to, the content is non-transparent and able to evade inspection and scrutiny, the researchers said.
But even when ads aren’t specifically targeted at certain groups, Facebook will distribute its ads based on who’s clicking.
“The combined result of the strategic use of ‘dark ads’ by marketers and the perpetuation of gendered, racialised, or classed stereotypes by automated systems is the prospect of new configurations of stereotyping, discrimination, and the promulgation of unaccountable forms of potentially socially harmful cultural messaging,” the report said.
This also isn't the first time Facebook's advertising system has been under the microscope: lobby group Reset Australia found Facebook was collecting data on underage users aged 13-18 and leaving them exposed to inappropriate advertising.
What did the researchers find?
The researchers asked the public to donate samples of advertisements they saw on Facebook, collecting samples of ads from 136 Australian Facebook users of varying ages, backgrounds and income levels.
The researchers found that Facebook enabled gender stereotypes with women exposed to more health, wellness and clothing ads, while men were three times more likely to see a finance or technology-related ad and more likely to see business-related ads.
More dangerously, loan services were viewed by those who had lower levels of education attainment, while gambling ads and alcohol ads were predominantly seen by men.
The ads left many feeling vulnerable, the research report said.
“Some were anxious about ads, others felt powerless, while many felt like the only thing to do was to block the ads themselves.”
While blocking ads stops the user from seeing the content, it’s already too late – more data on the individual has been collected, the research indicated.
“[Blocking the ad] does not prevent their behaviour being monitored for the purposes of so-called collaborative filtering: finding out which audiences might be most receptive to particular types of content,” the report said.
“Nor does it prevent them being profiled based on their activities – the data about their interests and behaviour is still captured by online platforms.”
The researchers also found that users were generally not conscious of the wider social impacts of advertising that side-steps accountability – “the possibility of stereotyping, discrimination, and anti-social messaging”.
Online ads live in an ‘unregulated Wild West’
Monash researcher Robbie Fordyce believes advertisers have to be accountable for the messages they promote.
“For all practical purposes, online advertising exists in an unregulated Wild West, enabling advertisers and platforms to see what they can get away with,” he said.
Ads are often targeted to certain audiences based on gender, ethnicity, or other factors, added co-researcher Verity Trott.
“The system doesn’t know when it is engaging in regressive, racist or sexist activity, it is driven blindly by the goal of maximising clicks and responses,” she said.
“It’s a customised digital virtual reality where we get our own ‘secret’ messages invisible to others.”
What can be done?
The Monash report recommended that social media platforms should be forced to provide public and searchable advertisement ‘libraries’ and said public awareness and discussion around ‘dark ads’ was needed.
“We can see that the Australian public lacks a suitable awareness of how online ads work, and lack a lot of nuance in terms of its effects,” said Fordyce.
“The Australian Federal Government’s News Media Bargaining Code has demonstrated that the government is not afraid of regulating social media giants, and we see an opportunity to take this further in making productive developments in a way that enhances democratic processes in Australia.”