The Interface

By Casey Newton

What Americans know (and don't know) about Facebook



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January 16 · Issue #274 · View online
The Interface
As part of its ongoing study of attitudes about Facebook, Pew Research today released some new data on how well people understand the fundamentals of ad targeting. In The Verge, Julia Alexander has the key findings:
Seventy-four percent of Facebook users are unaware that Facebook records a list of their interests for ad-targeting purposes, according to a new study from the Pew Institute.
Participants in the study were first pointed to Facebook’s ad preferences page, which lists out a person’s interests. Nearly 60 percent of participants admitted that Facebook’s lists of interests were very or somewhat accurate to their actual interests, and 51 percent said they were uncomfortable with Facebook creating the list.
Coverage of the data generally emphasized consumers’ ignorance. “Most Facebook users still in the dark about its creepy ad practices,” reported TechCrunch. “Facebook advertising profiles are a mystery to most users,” said the New York Times. “Most users still don’t know how Facebook advertising works,” said Wired.
All of these stories are accurate — but I tend to view this data more optimistically. A high school career spent staying up late and catching “Jaywalking” segments on The Tonight Show (don’t @ me) instilled a healthy skepticism that a large group of Americans could ever be assumed to know anything. As recently as 2017, a majority of Americans could not name a single right protected by the First Amendment. If these fellow countrymen of mine are still catching up to the vicissitudes of online ad platforms, I can forgive them.
But let’s take another look at the numbers. According to Pew, 26 percent of Americans are aware that Facebook records a list of their interests and uses it to target ads at them. There are roughly 214 million Americans with Facebook profiles. If that’s the case, then over the past decade, 55.6 million people have educated themselves about how ad targeting works. Facebook itself has played no small role in this effort, regularly describing their ad targeting system in software and marketing materials, and recently even started building pop-up events around it.
Then consider that Facebook usage in North America has been flat for three quarters. And toss in another set of Pew data, from September:
Pew surveyed more than 3,400 U.S. Facebook users in May and June, and found that a whopping 44 percent of those ages 18 to 29 say they’ve deleted the app from their phone in the last year. Some of them may have reinstalled it later.
Overall, 26 percent of survey respondents say they deleted the app, while 42 percent have “taken a break” for several weeks or more, and 54 percent have adjusted their privacy settings.
That survey did not attempt to attribute these deletions to any particular cause, though the authors speculate that a year of data privacy scandals has taken its toll. It seems possible, at least, that some of the tens of millions of Americans who do know how Facebook’s business model works are one reason that the company’s growth has slowed. (Totally saturating North America and running out of new customers is admittedly probably a bigger reason.)
It’s worth noting that a majority of survey respondents said Facebook had accurately pegged their interests, and only a bare majority of respondents said the list made them feel uncomfortable. “The data shows that 73% of people felt that categories accurately described what they like, and to us that’s a good thing because those people will have a better experience on Facebook,” Rob Goldman, who runs advertising at Facebook, said in a Twitter thread.
But the group of people who are both informed about how Facebook works and uncomfortable with it, while smaller than you might expect, is more than large enough to make a difference in Facebook’s future. Those 55.6 million Americans already represent a healthy constituency — one that, judging from declining Facebook usage, already appears to be voting.

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Rep. Ocasio-Cortez is going to teach Democrats how to be more popular on Twitter
Congressman David Cicilline Is Out to Change Tech and Antitrust
Pressure mounts on Google, Microsoft, and Amazon’s facial recognition tech
Hackers selling access to tamper with U.S. news sites
Pinterest is interviewing bankers — a sign that the IPO is finally happening
Sorry I Forgot Your Birthday, I Quit Facebook
Facebook is still a dog's best friend
World's Most Valuable Startup Takes a Hit From China's Slowdown
Twitter brings the reverse-chronological feed to Android
Facebook is a good place to find support when you’re grieving
Facebook Doesn’t Need to Fool You
And finally ...
Fake editions of The Washington Post handed out at multiple locations in D.C.
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