Survey: Most Facebook Users Unaware of Ad Classification

The vast majority of Facebook users didn't know the company uses algorithms to classify their preferences for targeted advertising, including political leanings, life events food preferences, hobbies and the devices they use, and about half of them weren't happy to learn that was the case.

That was according to a new Pew Research survey of Facebook users. It found that 74% did not know about the "your ad preferences" list of categorized interests and traits until led there by the Pew survey.

Once the researchers showed them how Facebook classified their behaviors for targeted ads, about half (51%) said they were not comfortable that the company had created that list.

That said, a majority 59% said those classifications either very (13%) or somewhat (46%) accurately reflected their interests. An even greater majority (73%) said the side either very accurately or somewhat accurately reflected their political views.

“These findings relate to some of the biggest issues about technology’s role in society,” said 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.”

"We want people to understand how our ad settings and controls work," said Facebook spokesperson Joe Osborne. "That means better ads for people. While we and the rest of the online ad industry need to do more to educate people on how interest-based advertising works and how we protect people’s information, we welcome conversations about transparency and control."

The survey was conducted Sept. 4-Oct. 1, 2018 among adults 18-plus who have a Facebook account. The margin of error is plus or minus 3.4 percentage points.

Facebook has been under pressure from Washington over how it shares user data with third parties. Just this week at the oversight hearing for Attorney General nominee William Barr, he was asked about enforcing a 2011 consent decree settling allegations Facebook deceived consumers by not keeping its privacy promises.

Related: Facebook Nudges Users Toward Maximum Data Collection

Facebook is already being investigated by the FTC over whether the Cambridge Analytica data sharing constituted a breach of that 2011 consent decree. 

John Eggerton

Contributing editor John Eggerton has been an editor and/or writer on media regulation, legislation and policy for over four decades, including covering the FCC, FTC, Congress, the major media trade associations, and the federal courts. In addition to Multichannel News and Broadcasting + Cable, his work has appeared in Radio World, TV Technology, TV Fax, This Week in Consumer Electronics, Variety and the Encyclopedia Britannica.