Facebook targets ‘insecure’ teens

Daily News Article   —   Posted on May 2, 2017

Facebook targets ‘insecure’ teens

(by Darren Davidson, The Australian) — Facebook is using sophisticated algorithms to identify and exploit Australians as young as 14, by allowing advertisers to target them at their most vulnerable, including when they feel “worthless” and “insecure,” secret internal documents ­reveal.

A 23-page Facebook document seen by The Australian marked “Confidential: Internal Only” and dated 2017, outlines how the social network can target “moments when young people need a confidence boost” in pinpoint detail.

By monitoring posts, pictures, interactions and internet activity in real-time, Facebook can work out when young people feel “stressed” “defeated” “overwhelmed” “anxious” “nervous” “stupid” “silly” “useless” and a “failure,” the document states. [Such information gathered through a system dubbed sentiment analysis could be used by advertisers to target young Facebook users when they are potentially more vulnerable.]

After being contacted by The Australian, Facebook issued an apology, and said it had opened an investigation, admitting it was wrong to target young people in this way.

“We have opened an investigation to understand the process failure and improve our oversight. We will undertake disciplinary and other processes as appropriate,” a Facebook spokeswoman said in a statement sent to The Australian at the weekend.

Rumors about Facebook’s advertising sales methods have been common in media circles for several years, but until now there has been no hard evidence, nor any suggestion they go to such considerable lengths to commercialize their youngest users.

In a move that raises profound ethical questions about Facebook’s use of covert surveillance, the document lays out how the world’s biggest social network is gathering psychological insights on 6.4 million “high schoolers, college students” and “young Australians and New Zealanders … in the workforce” to sell targeted advertising.

A presentation prepared for one of Australia’s top four banks shows how the $US415 billion advertising-driven giant has built a database of Facebook users in Australlia that is made up of 1.9 million high schoolers with an average age of 16, 1.5 million university students averaging 21 years old, and 3 million young workers averaging 26 years old.

Detailed information on mood shifts among young people is “based on internal Facebook data” the document states, “shareable under non-disclosure agreement only” and “is not publicly available.”

The document was prepared by two of Facebook’s top Australian executives, David Fernandez and Andy Sinn, and includes information on when young people exhibit “nervous ­excitement” and emotions related to “conquering fears.”

The tactics appear to breach the Australian Code for Advertising & Marketing Communications to Children guidelines which seeks to maintain a high sense of social responsibility.

The code defines a child as a person 14 years old or younger, and states a “child must obtain a parent or guardian’s express consent prior to engaging in any activity that will result in the collection or disclosure of … personal information.”

Personal information is described as “information that identifies the child or could identify the child.”

The revelations cast new light on how Facebook harvests and uses the extraordinary amounts of data that it gathers on the Australian population to figure out what people are doing and thinking (for the main purpose of making money by selling the information to advertisers).

The document claims that Facebook is not only able to detect sentiment, but it can also understand how emotions are communicated at different points during a young person’s week.

“Anticipatory emotions are more likely to be expressed early in the week, while reflective emotions increase on the weekend,” the document discloses. “Monday-Thursday is about building confidence; the weekend is for broadcasting achievements.”

Extremely detailed information that is available to advertisers includes a young person’s relationship status, location, number of Facebook friends they have and how often they access the platform via mobile or desktop. Other moments in young people’s lives Facebook is seeking to sell ads against are associated with “looking good and body confidence” and “working out & losing weight.”

Facebook is also able to reap information on how users are “representing emotion and communicating visually.”

For example, using image recognition tools, advertisers can see how people visually represent moments such as meal times on the company’s platforms including Instagram, the photo-sharing site that Facebook owns.

Because Facebook rolls out ad products on a regional and global basis, the company could be targeting young children around the world with these methods.

In its statement to The Australian, Facebook refused to disclose if the practice exists elsewhere, and claims “we care deeply about the people who use our services” and “understand the importance of ensuring their safety and wellbeing.”

The Facebook statement adds: “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 behavior, is involved.

“This research does not appear to have followed this process.”

The engine that drives Facebook’s opaque [unclear; hard to understand] ad sales system is built on algorithms — sets of complex instructions that Facebook’s engineers use to mine personal information about the preferences of a worldwide audience of 1.86 billion users.

Exactly how the ad sales system work is a closely guarded commercial secret. …

From TheAustralian .com.au. Reprinted here for educational purposes only. May not be reproduced on other websites without permission from The Australian.

Questions

1. What did secret Facebook documents reveal about the company’s program targeting Australian young people? Be specific.
b) What do the Facebook documents reveal about the company? (see paragraph 14)

2. How did Facebook gather the information about the emotions of younger users?

3. Why is the company gathering this detailed personal information on its younger users?

4. What information does Facebook provide to its advertisers from this secret information gathering? — How does Facebook use the information it secretly gains from teens? (see para. 17-19)

5. a) Describe Facebook’s response to The Australian news.
b) What do you think the company means when it says they will “undertake disciplinary and other processes”?
c) Should users who had personal / emotional details sold to advertisers be satisfied with Facebook’s response? Explain your answer.

6. a) Do you think Facebook gathers the same information about American users that it does about Australian teen users? Explain your answer.
b) Why is the 14-26 age group so important/lucrative to Facebook?

7. Read the following from an news .com.au article on the same story that is included in “Background” below the questions:

Mark Zuckerberg’s company has not been shy about exploring ways it can manipulate the data it collects on users.

For one week in 2012, Facebook ran an experiment on some of its users in which it altered the algorithms it used determine which status updates appeared in the news feed of nearly 700,000 randomly selected users based on the post’s emotional content.

Posts were determined to be either negative or positive and Facebook wanted to see if it could make the selected group sad by showing them more negative posts in their feed. It deemed it could.

The results were published in a scientific journal but Facebook was criticized by those concerned about the potential of the company to engage in social engineering for commercial benefit.

Currently information about your relationship status, location, age, number of friends and the manner and frequency with which you access the site is sold to advertisers. But according to the report, Facebook is also seeking to sell ads to users concerned with insights gleaned from posts such as those concerned with body confidence and losing weight.

a) What is your initial reaction to this information?

b) One reader wrote: “Don’t be fooled. These companies exist only to make billions of dollars for their founders and shareholders. They claim to be do-gooders and while they support some good causes to make themselves feel good about being multi-billionaires, it is at the expense not only of your privacy, but manipulating your thoughts and emotions for their own purposes.”
Do you agree or disagree with this assertion? Explain your answer.


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Background

Leaked document reveals Facebook conducted research to target emotionally vulnerable and insecure youth (from Australia’s news website news.com.au)

While Google is the king of the online advertising world, Facebook is the other major player which dominates the industry worth about $80 billion last year.

The leaked document shows it has been honing the covert tools its uses to gain useful psychological insights on young Australian and New Zealanders in high school and college and into their 20’s.

The social media services we use can derive immense insight and personal information about us and our moods from the way we use them, and arguably none is more fastidious in that regard than Facebook which harvests immense data on its users.

The secret document was put together by two Australian Facebook execs and includes information about when young people are likely to feel excited, reflective, as well as other emotions related to overcoming fears.

Facebook did not return attempts by news .com.au to comment on the issue but was quick to issue an apology and told The Australian that it will conduct an investigation into the matter, admitting it was inappropriate to target young children in such a way.

“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,” Facebook said in a statement issued to the newspaper.

However there is suggestion that the research could be in breach of Australian guidelines for advertising and marketing towards children.

Many commentators have suspected Facebook engaged in this sort of cynical exploitation of the data it gathers but the leaked document is scarce proof.

Mark Zuckerberg’s company has not been shy about exploring ways it can manipulate the data it collects on users.

For one week in 2012, Facebook ran an experiment on some of its users in which it altered the algorithms it used determine which status updates appeared in the news feed of nearly 700,000 randomly selected users based on the post’s emotional content.

Posts were determined to be either negative or positive and Facebook wanted to see if it could make the selected group sad by showing them more negative posts in their feed. It deemed it could.

The results were published in a scientific journal but Facebook was criticised by those concerned about the potential of the company to engage in social engineering for commercial benefit.

Facebook’s Data Use Policy warns users that the company “may use the information we receive about you … for internal operations, including troubleshooting, data analysis, testing, research and service improvement.”

Currently information about your relationship status, location, age, number of friends and the manner and frequency with which you access the site is sold to advertisers. But according to the report, Facebook is also seeking to sell ads to users concerned with insights gleaned from posts such as those concerned with body confidence and losing weight.

 

More about Facebook from the Australian:

  • News of the questionable sales tactics is the latest in a series of articles by The Australian about Facebook.
  • Last week, this newspaper reported how Facebook is offering rebates to media agencies based on how many staff they employ, and sweetens ad deals with an all-expenses-paid trip to its US headquarters, where founder Mark Zuckerberg is based.
  • Rebates are common in the media industry. But evidence of their existence raises important questions about whether ad buyers are given incentives by Facebook to direct client spend to Facebook regardless of whether such purchases are in an advertiser’s best interest.
  • The Australian also reported that Facebook’s ad metrics were over-estimated by 500 per cent, far more than previously thought
  • The Australian revealed that the business had parted company with Australian managing director Stephen Scheeler in February. Current Yahoo7 chief executive Ed Harrison is said to be the front runner for his job.
  • Mr. Harrison will have a big rebranding job on his hands if appointed. Australia is the only Facebook market in the world to experience slowing ad growth. (from the Australian article above)