With a growing public debate over Facebook’s use of personal data as a backdrop, a new Pew Research Center survey of Facebook users finds that most do not know the platform lists their interests for advertisers, and half are uncomfortable with these lists.
The study comes at a time when the FTC is reportedly considering fines of millions upon millions of dollars for Facebook privacy violations. Google at $22 million currently holds the record for illegal privacy actions. (See Cambridge Analytica on the egregious political use of Facebook data)
Roughly half of users say they are not comfortable when they see how Facebook categorizes them, while a share believe their political leanings are not described appropriately.
Overall, the array of information can cover users’ demographics, social networks and relationships, political leanings, life events, food preferences, hobbies, entertainment interests and the digital devices they use.
The *survey is said to be of a nationally representative sample of 963 Facebook users. It investigates how well they understand the site’s algorithmically-driven classification system, and how much they think their lives line up with what Facebook reports about them on their personal “ad preferences” page.
This controversial page is unique for a user and displays information about their interests and traits, including a list of designations created by Facebook’s algorithm that considers data provided by users to the site and their engagement with content on the site.
The survey finds that a vast majority of Facebook users (88%) have their traits and interests categorized by the platform. Yet three-quarters of Facebook users (74%) report they did not know this list of categories existed on Facebook before being directed to the page during the survey. Moreover, once shown how the platform classifies their behaviors and personas, roughly half of Facebook users (51%) say they are not comfortable that the company created such a list.
When asked how accurately they feel the list represents them and their interests, 59% of Facebook users say those lists very (13%) or somewhat (46%) accurately reflect their interests. Some 27% of Facebook users say the list “not very” (22%) or “not at all” accurately (5%) represents them. The rest of Facebook users were not asked the question because their ad preferences page had no listings for them.
In addition, the survey explored two of the specific listings that are part of Facebook’s classification system: users’ political leanings and their “multicultural affinities” – a euphemism meant to designate people who likely have an interest in a racial or ethnic culture, whether they consider themselves an actual member of that racial or ethnic group.
In both cases, more Facebook users say that the site’s categorization of them is accurate than say it is inaccurate. At the same time, the findings show that portions of users think Facebook’s listings for them are not on the mark.
Findings Related to These Political and Multicultural Affinity Listings
- Political labels are commonly assigned to Facebook users. Roughly half (51%) of those in this survey are given such a label.
- Close to three-quarters (73%) of those assigned a label on their political views say the listing very accurately or somewhat accurately describes their views. About a quarter (27%) of those given political classifications by Facebook say that label is not very or not at all accurate.
- About a fifth of Facebook users (21%) report they are listed as having “multicultural affinity.”
- Some 43% of those given an affinity designation are said by Facebook’s algorithm to have an interest in African American culture, and the same share (43%) is assigned an affinity with Hispanic culture. One-in-ten are assigned an affinity with Asian American culture. Facebook’s detailed targeting tool for ads does not offer affinity classifications for any other cultures in the U.S., including Caucasian or white culture.
- Of those assigned a multicultural affinity, 60% said they had a “very” or “somewhat” strong affinity for the group they were assigned, compared with 37% who said they did not have a strong affinity or interest.
- 57% of those assigned a group said they considered themselves to be a member of that group, while 39% said they were not members of that group.
“These findings relate to some of the biggest issues about technology’s role in society,” noted Lee Rainie, director of internet and technology research at Pew Research Center. “They are central to the major discussions about consumer privacy, the role of micro-targeting of advertisements in commerce and political activity, and the role of algorithms in shaping news and information systems. This research tries to bring some data to those debates.”
* This report is based on a nationally representative survey conducted from Sept. 4 to Oct. 1, 2018, among a sample of 963 adults 18 years of age or older who have a Facebook account. The survey was conducted by the GfK Group in English and Spanish using KnowledgePanel, its nationally representative online research panel. The margin of error for the full sample is plus or minus 3.4 percentage points.