How Facebook Manipulates Us Part 2: Our Personal Expression
Our desire for personal expression is the gasoline that keeps the social internet running.
This is part two in our short exploration of how Facebook manipulates us.
So Facebook exists to make money more than they exist to connect the world. There’s nothing wrong at all with making money, don’t get me wrong. But when you realize that the primary goal of Facebook is to make money, as we covered last Thursday, you understand that it is their revenue, not their users, that is the primary driver behind their decisions. Why does this matter? Because Facebook has many decisions to make, many of which pit the wellness of users and the profitability of Facebook against each other.
At basically every turn, Facebook makes decisions that generate them more money at the cost of user wellness. Mark Zuckerberg and Facebook’s employees rule over the most influential communication platform to exist in the last half-century, and they routinely make decisions to govern that platform to generate as much revenue as humanly possible at great costs to humanity. The platform is designed to manipulate users to act in certain ways when they come across advertisements. The first ingredient that makes Facebook a master manipulator is something we freely give it: our personal expression.
Facebook Knows You Better Than You Know Yourself
Facebook reads everything you post to Facebook. I don’t mean there’s some software engineer in Silicon Valley scrolling through your profile—that would be too expensive. Facebook’s artificial intelligence collects data points about you based on what you put into the platform. Do you have your current city of residence in your profile? Facebook has that. Maybe you told Facebook your anniversary is June 1? They have that too. But it goes far beyond just what’s in your profile. Did you post a status update asking about the best tires for your 2017 Honda Odyssey minivan? Facebook now knows you have a 2017 Honda Odyssey minivan. Did you post about your recent bout with anxiety and depression? Facebook now knows you have mental health issues. Our desire for personal expression is the gasoline that keeps the social internet running. We want people to know who we are and what is going on in our lives. As we share all of this information, we are put into categories—a minivan owner with depression whose anniversary is June 1—and Facebook delivers us advertising based on this data that we have shared.
How Facebook Ads Work
Facebook makes nearly $70 billion dollars a year in advertising because their ads can be specifically targeted to a particular audience in a way television or radio ads never could. In the 1990s, a car company could have theorized, “A lot of moms watch Oprah, so let’s run a minivan ad during Oprah,” but they couldn’t know for sure if those moms already had a minivan or were maybe in the market for one.
Today, a car company could run that same ad on Facebook targeting 20-29-year-old mothers who have children ages 0-2 and do not own a minivan already. The Facebook ad is more accurate and, thus, more likely to drive a sale. That is incredibly profitable, in some ways kind of cool, but mostly super creepy. Facebook uses everything we input into its platform to place us into virtual buckets or categories that makes advertisers’ ads much more effective. Facebook says that they harvest our data and deliver us relevant ads because relevant ads make the user experience more enjoyable. If you attempt to turn off the ability for other websites to tell Facebook about a recent purchase or other activity, Facebook warns you that your ads may not be as “relevant” or “personalized.”
Which would you prefer: Facebook ads for baby clothes misinterpreted as relevant for you based on your recent post about your miscarriage or Facebook ads for organic cat food based on zero data about your web activity whatsoever? I’ll take the cat food, thank you. But that does lead us to the second way Facebook harvests data to use for profit: our internet activity away from Facebook. We’ll cover this on Thursday.
Why It Matters
All of this matters for one main reason: Facebook is used by billions of people every day, and for too many of those billions, Facebook has become a faux-reality through which they process the real world. Facebook is transforming the way people think and how they understand what is real and not real. More and more “bad actors” are realizing this and weaponizing Facebook.
The water in which we swim is poisoned. We may, like a fish, not be able to live outside the waters of the social internet. It is simply too pervasive. But I am begging you, readers, to be aware that the waters are toxic. Do not let what you see on Facebook determine reality. It’s too easy for people to use it to manipulate you.