Let’s start on the other side of things. Facebook makes its money through advertisements. Advertisers, in a desire to reach their intended audiences, rely on Facebook to sell them space in front of the right types of people.
So, Facebook needs to categorize people based on demographics, geography and interests. When you place an ad with Facebook, you select this criteria and your ad is fed to them accordingly.
“About half of Facebook users say they are not comfortable when they see how the platform categorizes them, and 27% maintain the site’s classifications do not accurately represent them.”Hitlin & Rainie, Facebook Algorithms and Personal Data
Similarly, content is fed to users based on these same profiles. Think of your feed as a bucket that you fill at the seashore. Everything you’ve “scooped up” lives in that bucket. That’s everything you have decided to follow, including “friends” and “pages”, all the information you have added to your profile, and everything behavior you have logged on the site (like clicks and comments — in addition to everything that Facebook wants to show you for ads.
Then, Facebook’s algorithm puts all that content in an order, and also adds a frequency to how many times you see something. The result is an individualized newsfeed of what is (supposed to be) most important and interesting to you.
Honestly, it’s a little janky with the impact of cookies, user errors, and hundreds of thousands of content creators trying to game the system.
One thing that you might not be aware of is that you can actually see how facebook has classified you and you can change it. Well, you can change some of it.
How Facebook Classifies You
As you interact with the platform, Facebook (and really all commercial sites), collect data on your behaviors. This is part of your user agreement and the most valuable thing you exchange to use their platform.
The Pew Research Center surveyed Facebook users to see what they thought of their classifications. Many did not know that they were being classified and a significant percentage objected to how they had been represented.
I do not list this information voluntarily. However, my Facebook-generated settings listed my race as “African American Affinity”, my political affiliation as “extremely conservative.” Neither of these is accurate.
Shockingly, my ad preferences generated a lot of extreme right wing to alt-right topics from Sean Hannity to Brietbart. I wished that I had taken a screen shot before I hastily unclicked all of them. I assume that they were generated because I attended Liberty University, although I have no idea why Facebook thought I wanted this content.
As a content creator, I read all sides and pay attention to what is trending. However, most of the groups and people on that list are abhorrent to me.
How to Find Your Settings
To see your settings, log into Facebook and look at the upper-righthand corner for a drop-down menu arrows. Click on “Settings.” Click on “Ads.”
Inside you’ll find several sections such as “Your Interests” and “Your Information.”
How Facebook determines this is opaque, but it seems to be a mix of both your behavior and your friend’s behavior.
As mentioned above, I had a lot of surprising, “very conservative” markers (including a preference for Laura Ingram and Rush Limbaugh!).
Additionally, some classifications are just confusing like my multicultural: African American “racial affinity”.
Does this mean Facebook thinks I’m black? Or are there deeper implications for how Facebook defines “interest groups” according to race? That second question has some disturbingly racist implications.
Typically, affinity is a behavior marker with regard to ads. I was unable to see exactly what Facebook means by this classification, as they do not explain it clearly anywhere. My mother, and yes we are biologically related, is listed as “Hispanic.”
What Did You Uncover?
Back to my bucket illustration, our behavior on Facebook generates a lot of data, much like scooping into the ocean. But, that doesn’t mean that all the information is accurate or relevant. Instead, someone (or rather the someones programming the platform) develops a virtual sieve that sorts our data to create a profile.
Whatever that process, it’s used not just to categorize us for an optimal experience but also turns us into products that they sell to advertisers. While using their platform is an explicit (albeit often forgotten) permission to be “bought and sold,” it’s unsettling to see content decisions made based on inaccurate information.
When you review your settings, I’d love to hear about them.
Did you find yourself (like me) deselecting “Game of Thrones” from your interests because 1.) You’ve never really watched the show and 2.) It’s finally over and we can stop hearing about it?
Let me know how accurate your classifications are and if you altered any of them.
Hitlin, P., & Rainie, L. (2019, January 16). Facebook Algorithms and Personal Data. Retrieved from http://www.pewinternet.org/2019/01/16/facebook-algorithms-and-personal-data/