Facebook has been in the news quite a bit for its ad targeting over the past year, most notably with reports that the now-defunct Cambridge Analytica used improperly obtained data to develop “personality” profiles on U.S. voters and target ads toward them during the 2016 U.S. presidential election. But many users are still unaware what information Facebook actually collects for ad targeting purposes.
A new survey out this morning from Pew Research found that 74 percent of Facebook users surveyed did not know there was a “your ad preferences page” where they could see which ad categories Facebook had placed them into, based on interests and information they’ve shared with the service. Pew surveyed 963 U.S. adults with Facebook accounts between September 4 and October 1, 2018.
Although 59 percent of users surveyed felt that the ad categories Facebook had placed them into were accurate, 51 percent said they were not comfortable with Facebook collecting this information.
Pew also asked respondents how accurate they felt two of Facebook’s most sensitive classifications were: political leanings, and racial and ethnic “affinities” (Facebook says it assigns the latter categories based on whether their activity suggests affinity with a certain group, so as not to make it seem like the company is trying to predict a person’s race or ethnicity).
Among respondents who Facebook assigned a political leaning to, 73 percent felt the classification was very or somewhat accurate. Of the 21 percent who were assigned an affinity to a racial or ethnic group, 60 percent felt the classification was very or somewhat accurate.
Facebook doesn’t make the ad preferences page prominent, instead burying it under the settings page alongside a host of other tabs. So it’s not surprising that many Facebook users don’t know it exists. Still, under scrutiny from Congress, executives including CEO Mark Zuckerberg have emphasized that most users have not turned off ad targeting in their settings — implying that the company believes most users are aware of the information Facebook collects for ad targeting purposes and are okay with the practice. Today’s survey offers yet another piece of evidence that most users still have a murky understanding of data collection and ad targeting on the platform.
In response to the study, a Facebook spokesperson sent VentureBeat the following comment: “Pew’s findings underscore the importance of transparency and control across the entire ad industry, and the need for more consumer education around the controls we place at people’s fingertips. This year we’re doing more to make our settings easier to use and hosting more in-person events on ads and privacy.”
Later, that spokesperson sent further comment:
We want people to understand how our ad settings and controls work. That means better ads for people. While we and the rest of the online ad industry need to do more to educate people on how interest-based advertising works and how we protect people’s information, we welcome conversations about transparency and control.