It might be time to start paying more attention to the fine print when you sign up for social media sites like Facebook. Without realizing it, you’re handing over a lot of power, and Facebook is ready and waiting to use it. This was once again highlighted recently when the paper The Australian broke the story that the social media giant had been using special algorithms to monitor the posts and comments of Australians as young as 14, to find those who are vulnerable so that they can be exploited by greedy advertisers.
A 23-page confidential document leaked to The Australian marked “Confidential: Internal Only,” reveals how Facebook has been using what it calls “sentiment analysis” to identify youth whose posts show that they feel defeated, overwhelmed, anxious, nervous, stressed, stupid, silly, useless or like failures. In this way, Facebook can determine the exact “moments when young people need a confidence boost.”
Advertisers can use this information to determine when to try to pitch a product to someone when they’re at their most vulnerable – a diet pill to someone who’s feeling down about being overweight, for example. And advertising revenue is massive for Facebook. Second only to Google in the world of online advertising, Facebook generates about $80 billion in such revenue each year.
When called out by The Australian, Facebook immediately issued an apology and admitted that such targeting and manipulation of children is wrong. They also issued a statement in which they tried to distance themselves from the problem, as though others, as yet unnamed and uncaught, were to blame:
“We have opened an investigation to understand the process failure and improve our oversight. We will undertake disciplinary and other processes as appropriate.”
Notice how the company then went on to say that while holding itself to a higher standard, the whole unsavory business was nonetheless legal.
“While the data on which this research is based was aggregated and presented consistent with applicable privacy and legal protections, including the removal of any personally identifiable information, our internal process sets a standard higher than required by law. Facebook only permits research following a rigorous procedure of review whenever sensitive data, particularly data involving young people or their emotional behaviour, is involved. This research does not appear to have followed this process.”
And it gets worse because of what you agree to let them do with that information. Under the heading “How do we use this information,” the company explains that it uses it to improve and develop its services and to communicate more effectively with clients, but then goes on to add, “We use the information we have to improve our advertising and measurement systems so we can show you relevant ads on and off our Services and measure the effectiveness and reach of ads and services.” [Emphasis added]
And there you have it: Facebook’s creepy voyeuristic practices are all legal, and you agreed to them when you signed up. It might be a good idea to start being more careful about what you post about yourself and even other people; you never know what Facebook might be doing with the information you’ve voluntarily signed over to them.