Among the unanswered questions at Mark Zuckerberg’s congressional hearings this week, the CEO was a bit stumped when asked if he would be willing to change Facebook’s business model in order to protect users’ privacy. Facebook’s data collection has received a lot of attention from a security perspective, but a new report illustrates why we should be just as concerned about how it uses that data to influence our behavior.
The Intercept has obtained what it claims is a recent document that describes a new service being offered to Facebook’s advertising clients. Going beyond micro-targeting ads based on what it knows about your past and present, the social media company is now reportedly offering to use its artificial intelligence to predict what you will do in the future—and giving clients the opportunity to intervene through a barrage of influence. From the report:
One slide in the document touts Facebook’s ability to “predict future behavior,” allowing companies to target people on the basis of decisions they haven’t even made yet. This would, potentially, give third parties the opportunity to alter a consumer’s anticipated course. Here, Facebook explains how it can comb through its entire user base of over 2 billion individuals and produce millions of people who are “at risk” of jumping ship from one brand to a competitor.
These individuals could then be targeted aggressively with advertising that could pre-empt and change their decision entirely — something Facebook calls “improved marketing efficiency.” This isn’t Facebook showing you Chevy ads because you’ve been reading about Ford all week — old hat in the online marketing world — rather Facebook using facts of your life to predict that in the near future, you’re going to get sick of your car. Facebook’s name for this service: “loyalty prediction.”
Facebook is reportedly using its FBLearner Flow technology to drive this new initiative. The tool was first introduced in 2016 as Facebook’s next step in machine learning and in since then it’s been discussed as a way to improve people’s experience on the platform rather than a way to improve marketing. Any time Zuckerberg was asked for a solution to a tough problem by a member of Congress this week, his response was some variation on “better AI will solve it.” Well, the company calls FBLearner Flow the “backbone” of its AI initiative and it introduces plenty of problems of its own.
For years, advertising has relied on a few core principles and a handful of tools. There are essentially two kinds of businesses: those that recognize a problem and offer a solution, and those that have a solution and want to introduce a problem that people didn’t really have before. Advertising is useful for both, but it’s essential for the latter. It’s well-understood that ad execs prey on people’s insecurities and concoct unnecessary desires to shape their behavior. And for a long time, that business was conducted through gut feelings, limited market research, and a little dash of Freud. The era of Big Data changes that.