Teens on Facebook may be targeted by advertisements endorsing alcohol, drugs, gambling, smoking and eating disorders, according to a report from a watchdog group. The Tech Transparency project created six test ads and submitted them to Facebook, claiming to reach users aged 13 to 17. Facebook approved all ads within hours, including one promoting the 43-minute pill.
“It’s an easy fix, and Facebook should have had the foresight to do it a long time ago,” said Katie Paul, director of the Tech Transparency project. “Whether it’s an oversight or a drain is not important. It is completely unacceptable. “
When you scroll down Facebook and the Wider web, its algorithms monitor your behavior. Finally, he puts you into categories based on what he observes about you: your political leanings, your favorite music, your interests and hobbies, etc. This is what attracts advertisers, who want to serve ads tailored to these groups.
But a lot users are not aware that Facebook can infer everything from their race to their sexuality or relationship status just from their online activity. In addition, many of these categories are not suitable for minors. The report found that Facebook was using teenage behavior to put them into interest categories of “alcoholic beverages,” “extreme weight loss,” and “tobacco,” even noting if the teens were single so they could be. targeted by ads on dating sites.
All Facebook users are placed in interest categories. But minors under the age of 18 are not supposed to be classified into certain categories of adults. Facebook got in hot water for showing inappropriate advertising to children since at least 2014. Like recently in 2019, a survey of The Guardian found that children were still labeled as interested in tobacco and alcohol.
Journalists discovered other problems with the categories created by the company’s algorithm. In 2017, a ProPublica report found that the company allowed advertisers to target users who have marked their own profession as “Jewish hunters”. The following year, Facebook apologized for indicating that thousands of users in Russia were “interested in betrayal”. Then, in 2019, Facebook settled with civil rights groups who alleged the company allowed advertisers to discriminate against certain groups when posting ads for jobs and housing.
Facebook has railings in place to prevent these from being shown to underage users, but the TTP manager says the test ads were approved “within hours.”
“There is absolutely no reason why Facebook has labeled nearly a million teens as potentially interested in ‘alcoholic drinks’ and other categories,” said Paul.
A Facebook spokesperson said the company couldn’t comment without seeing the report.
TTP has created six test ads, each designed around a topic that users under the age of 18 aren’t supposed to see. These include an ad for “ana tips” (“ana” is a well-known abbreviation for anorexia), which TTP says targets users that Facebook classifies as being interested in “extreme weight loss” and “dietetic foods”. A fake vaping ad targeted underage users classified as interested in “electronic cigarettes” and “tobacco”. Advertisers aren’t allowed to target users under the age of 18 with dating ads, but TTP’s test ad was approved in just two hours.
In addition to creating the categories, Facebook also shows advertisers its “estimated reach,” the number of users who can see an ad once it’s placed. Facebook estimated that 900,000 users would see the alcohol ad, while 5 million would see the dating site ad. Without immediate correction to the way the social network monitors its own rules for ad placement, the group warns that Facebook is “positioned to profit from harmful messages … aimed at a vulnerable age group.”
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