Are Social Media Advertisers Spying On You?

Have you ever looked at a product on one browser and then had an ad for that same product pop up on a Facebook ad? No, you’re not going crazy, and yes, Facebook is spying on you.

A few months ago, I discovered that you can find a list of your ad preferences on Facebook. It was definitely a little bit scary going through the various things they thought I was interested in. They work this out not only by using your Facebook data but also your general online activity.

But recently, news about Facebook ad preferences got even scarier. ProPublica just revealed that Facebook advertising allows companies to target users according to their “ethnic affinities”. It means advertisers can decide to exclude people from a certain advert because they’ve made certain judgments about ethnic groups.

ProPublica tested this out by purchasing a fake ad space on Facebook. They advertised a housing product and discovered they could narrow their target audience according to ethnicity. In this case, they showed how they could exclude African Americans (US), Asian Americans (US), and Hispanics (US – Spanish dominant).

The legality is extremely controversial. One lawyer ProPublica talked to declared it was “massively illegal”, violating the Civil Rights Act of 1964. In response to these claims, Facebook argued that “ethnic affinity” isn’t the same as “ethnicity”. But this technicality definitely seems a bit shaky.

What Could Happen Next?

What are the dangers if this sort of thing continues? If advertisers can exclude a certain demographic based on their “ethnic affinities”, they could also exclude people based on their gender, age, religion, sexuality. It’s just one step further down the scary advertising rabbit hole. What if advertisers decide next that because I’m a woman, I shouldn’t be shown certain sports adverts, or beer adverts, or car adverts?

While going through my ad preferences, I realized that Facebook had decided I was “single”. This is only because I haven’t shared the change in my relationship status. I decided never to change that information again because when my ex-boyfriend and I broke up and removed our relationship from Facebook, dating websites overwhelmed my news feed. That was the last thing I wanted to see while trying to get over a breakup!

More than that, though, it’s also an extremely personal piece of information for advertisers to target and for Facebook to allow advertisers to use. It’s made me certain that I never want to share such personal details on Facebook again. But that in itself is frustrating! Why does Facebook feel like it has the right to mine our personal information to benefit their advertisers? Their priority isn’t the privacy concerns of their users but the financial gain they can make from advertisers.

Most people have no idea that Facebook can use their information this way. Hopefully, more revelations like this one by ProPublica will surface. And hopefully, everyone will become more aware of the darker side of Facebook and the advertising world.

Featured photo: Northern Light

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  1. Targeting by ethnic affinities is not about excluding people on a personal level, it’s about only including people that are more likely to buy an advertiser’s product based on the market research they’ve done. Plus, all sites are collecting your data, even this one.

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