Amid rising concern about how Facebook has been used to influence public perception, and action, The Social Network has released an updated listing of its ad principles, the core tenets upon which their ad decisions are made.
As you’d expect, the guidelines don’t reveal a lot, but they’re intended to provide a level of reassurance – both to users and advertisers.
Some of the key points include an outline of why they need ads, and how their auction system is designed to benefit users, not Facebook necessarily:
“Advertising is how we provide our services for free. But ads shouldn’t be a tax on your experience. We want ads to be as relevant and useful to you as the other posts you see. This is important for businesses too, because you’re less likely to respond to ads that are irrelevant or annoying. That’s why we start with people. Our auction system, which determines which ads get shown to you, prioritizes what’s most relevant to you, rather than how much money Facebook will make from any given ad.”
Along the same line, Facebook's noted various times that they’re close to reaching ‘peak ad load’ in the News Feed. That said, Facebook booked a $10 billion result for the last quarter - so while absolute focus on revenue may not necessarily be the driving goal, it’s doing pretty well as a result.
Facebook’s also included a dedicated section titled ‘We don’t sell your data’:
“We don’t sell personal information like your name, Facebook posts, email address, or phone number to anyone. Protecting people’s privacy is central to how we’ve designed our ad system. This means we can show you relevant and useful ads – and provide advertisers with meaningful data about the performance of their ads — without advertisers learning who you are.”
Which is fine, and makes perfect sense, but advertisers don’t need to know your exact details to target you with highly focused ads.
For example, in the 2016 US Presidential Election, voters were targeted by region, based on interests, based on age – any range of factors that can help them create a very detailed picture of you and your interests, and act on that, without knowing your specifics.
Previous data has shown that your Facebook Like profile can just as effectively highlight your personality traits and psychological leanings as people who actually know you can, if not moreso, so the specific detail is likely less relevant – though a necessary point of clarification in the current climate.
Facebook also provides an outline of how users can control the ads they see on the platform, and an overview the logic behind their in-development ad transparency tools to provide more insight into how each advertiser is using Facebook ads.
And Facebook also points to its policies on discriminatory ads and ad targeting:
“We have Community Standards that prohibit hate speech, bullying, intimidation and other kinds of harmful behavior. We hold advertisers to even stricter advertising policies to protect you from things like discriminatory ads – and we have recently tightened our ad policies even further. We don’t want advertising to be used for hate or discrimination, and our policies reflect that. We review many ads proactively using automated and manual tools, and reactively when people hide, block or mark ads as offensive. When we review an ad, we look at its content, targeting, landing page and the identity of the advertiser. We may not always get it right, but our goal is to prevent and remove content that violates our policies without censoring public discourse.”
The platform’s ad targeting came under fire late last year when it was revealed that advertisers were able to exclude users of specific races from seeing ads, specifically housing advertisements. Facebook took action to address such concerns, and suggested that many of their targeting tools are automatically generated based on user actions – but more recent studies have shown that such targeting is still possible, showing there’s some way to go.
Facebook’s core message, however, is that their ad tools aim to empower all businesses, big and small.
“Our goal is to show ads that are as relevant and useful as the other content you see. If we do this effectively, advertising on Facebook can also help businesses large and small increase their sales and hire more people — as research published recently showed.”
So while the clarification is interesting, it feels more like a PR exercise than an informative set of guidelines. Which is fine too, but the overall message is less ‘this is how our system is being improved’ and more ‘we do lots of good things, and we’re trying really hard – please don’t hate us’.
Realistically, Facebook advertising is here to stay either way, and their targeting is a key component of that. Given this, and their reliance on AI to fuel such systems, there will no doubt be more, creepy errors. Facebook will only be able to address such as they come up. Unless there are over-arching regulations put in place, which Zuck and Co. would definitely rather avoid.