Citizens really want to know: What are relevant ads, Facebook?

Facebook says it wants to make sure you have a good experience and uses your data to make sure you see relevant ads. But what is relevant?
26 April 2018

How does Facebook decide what ads are relevant to you? Source: Shutterstock

By now, you know how much data Facebook has on you. It’s a lot. Experts say that the way the company has collected data about you, your activities, your choices, tastes, and preferences, and your relationships and social circles, it knows you better than your best friend – or maybe even yourself.

Rob Goldman, Facebook’s Vice President of Ads recently published a blogpost that caught the attention of people on the internet who’re concerned about their data.

In his blog post, Goldman said:

To build a product that connects people across continents and cultures, we need to make sure everyone can afford it. Advertising lets us keep Facebook free. So our promise is this: we do not tell advertisers who you are or sell your information to anyone. That has always been true. We think relevant advertising and privacy aren’t in conflict, and we’re committed to doing both well.

Goldman also posed the question that many citizens have asked the company several times so far – why does Facebook need all this data? He says that the company needs the information to give users a better service and helps them provide users with better and more relevant ads.

However, nowhere in his blogpost does Goldman ask the golden question: what are relevant ads?

The blogpost finally explains that although users can’t opt out of ads altogether because ads help keep the platform free, users have different options to control how their data can and can’t be used to show them ads.

And although Goldman says these options are highlighted in “ad preferences“, it’s not an easy page to find on Facebook.

Once you go to ad preferences, you’ll see how the platform has profiled you – in full color.

Right from capturing your interests and the advertisers you’ve interacted with, to the information and ad setting they say you’ve provided.

They even have a section specifically outlining what ad topics they shouldn’t show you – although they only offer three choices – alcohol, parenting, and pets.

The page lets you hide these ads for 6 months, 1 year, or permanently. It also says you can suggest other topics to hide – so we suggested Politics. Let’s see if that works?

At the bottom of the page, there’s a link to “How Facebook ads work” which leads you to a set of slides explaining what data they collect about you and help you access a set of dashboards to control that data.

Even if you read through it all, and explore all the pages they send you away to, you still won’t find a definition for “relevant ads”.

So, it seems like Goldman’s blogpost Hard Questions: What Information Do Facebook Advertisers Know About Me? didn’t really answer the hard(est) question after all: How do you define what a relevant ad is (and how can I help you tailor that ad to what I really want to see as against what my past behavior has taught you to show me)?