Study: You Can’t Handle the Truth About Facebook Ads

May 10, 2018

After it emerged that Facebook user data was illicitly harvested to help elect Donald Trump, the company offered weeks of apologies, minor reforms to how it shares such information, and a pledge to make itself “more transparent,” including new, limited disclosures around advertising. But Facebook still tells its 2 billion users very little about how it targets them for ads that represent essentially the whole of the company’s business. New research illuminates the likely reason why: The truth grosses people out.

The study, based on research conducted at Harvard Business School and published in the Journal of Consumer Research, is an inquiry into the tradeoffs between transparency and persuasion in the age of the algorithm. Specifically, it examines what happens if a company reveals to people how and why they’ve been targeted for a given ad, exposing the algorithmic trail that, say, inferred that you’re interested in discounted socks based on a constellation of behavioral signals gleaned from across the web. Such targeting happens to virtually everyone who uses the internet, almost always without context or explanation.

In the Harvard study, research subjects were asked to browse a website where they were presented with various versions of an advertisement — identical except for accompanying text about why they were being shown the ad. Time and time again, people who were told that they were targeted based on activity elsewhere on the internet were turned off and became less interested in what the ad was touting than people who saw no disclosure or were told that they were targeted based on how they were browsing the original site.

In other words, if you track people across the internet, as Facebook routinely does, and admit that fact to them, the transparency will poison the resulting ads. The 449 paid subjects in the targeting research, who were recruited online, were about 24 percent less likely to be interested in making a purchase or visiting the advertiser if they were in the group that was told they were tracked across websites, researchers said.

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