Report Alleges Facebook Stalking Kids to Extract Boost in Ad Revenues

By Ashok Ramprasad | November 18, 2021
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WASHINGTON, DC - SEPTEMBER 30: Senator Richard Blumenthal (D-CT) looks on as Antigone Davis, Director, Global Head of Safety, Facebook testifies virtually during a Senate Commerce, Science and Transportation Subcommittee on Consumer Protection, Product Safety and Data Security hearing on children's online safety and mental health on Capitol Hill on September 30, 2021 in Washington, DC. (Photo by Tom Brenner-Pool/Getty Images)

Facebook, which is steeped in a series of scandals after former employee Frances Haugen leaked thousands of pages of classified documents, is in the spotlight once again. This time, the company is being accused of collecting data from children and stalking teenagers for targeted ads to boost its ad revenues. The exposé comes as part of a research conducted by advocacy groups Reset Australia, Fairplay, and Global Action Plan. 

The social media behemoth had previously pledged in July of this year to limit advertisers’ ability to reach young users. This meant that advertisers could only target ads to those under 18 depending on their age, gender, and location. Targeting ads based on a user’s interests or activity on other websites and apps is no longer allowed.

However, Facebook, the parent company of which is now known as Meta, has apparently maintained the capability to track and target youngsters, the research states. In order to optimize interaction and increase ad revenue, Facebook continues to use artificial intelligence (AI) to observe children and collect data on what they are interested in based on their browsing patterns.  

As such, when it comes to hyper manipulative marketing, Facebook has failed to make a significant impact in shielding some of its most sensitive users. It has chosen a deceptive tactic by knocking off only a portion of the advertisers’ ability to target ads.

In an open letter to Meta CEO Mark Zuckerberg, the organizations behind the research together with other groups underlined the findings of the study and demanded the tech giant disclose how teens are actually manipulated on its platforms. They blamed the company for deceiving both users and lawmakers.

“Replacing ‘targeting selected by advertisers’ with ‘optimization selected by a machine learning delivery system’ does not represent a demonstrable improvement for children, despite Facebook’s claims in July. Facebook is still using the vast amount of data it collects about young people in order to determine which children are most likely to be vulnerable to a given ad,” the letter states.

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Disturbing tactic to increase ad revenue

The group warned that such a practice is really disturbing as “optimized” targeting might include weight loss ads being displayed to youngsters with emerging eating disorders or an ad being targeted at a teen who might be in a vulnerable state.

For the report, researchers conducted an experiment that involved the creation of three accounts – one registered as a 13-year-old and two registered as 16-year-olds.  

“Our test account browsed a number of webpages containing an embedded Facebook Pixel. As the test account was logged in to Facebook, data about these visits could be identified by Facebook Pixel because of the login Cookie ‘c_user,’” they wrote.

Facebook uses this pixel data to collect information from browser pages and tabs opened by its young users. The platform collects details like which buttons the children click on, which products they search for or purchase or put in their basket, etc.

In a statement to Independent, a Facebook spokesperson defended against the accusations leveled in the study, saying that the platforms show the use of such tools in their transparency reports.

“We don’t use data from our advertisers’ and partners’ websites and apps to personalize ads to people under 18. The reason this information shows up in our transparency tools is because teens visit sites or apps that use our business tools. We want to provide transparency into the data we receive, even if it’s not used for ads personalization,” the spokesperson said.