Is Facebook Spying on You?

Facebook Spies

This month’s posts have been focused on how the outside world influences our kids.  One way is through social media personalities and web celebrities.  These individuals have become trusted for their content, so when they say something is worth checking out, Generation Z is more likely to take a look.  The second way is through advertising agencies who are explicitly targeting the Centennials.  Advertising companies have shifted their strategies to attract the younger generation and this shift has led some people to believe Facebook spies on their users. 

With the Holiday shopping season ramping up, it felt like a good time to look at targeted advertising.  This post should help you understand how and why specific ads show up in your browser.  This post revolves around Facebook as the example, but please be aware that almost all of the major retailers have systems in place for targeted advertising.  For example, Instagram, the most popular app among today’s youth, is owned by Facebook.  Many of the tactics discussed below occur on their platform as well.

UPDATE:  Due the fact that I have been researching targeted advertising for this post, I have begun receiving online advertisements related to tracking user content. 

Is Facebook listening to your conversations?
There is a rumor going around right now that suggests Facebook and other social media sites are listening to the conversations you have on your smartphone as a way to determine what products to advertise you.  The rumor is typically backed with a few crazy stories that involve someone talking about a random item (like a banana peeler) only to have that item show up in an advertisement through Facebook or Instagram not long after. This is not the first time this rumor has circulated the Internet, and I doubt it will be the last.  Facebook released a statement last year expressly denying that is listening to your conversations.   I tend to believe this, but whether you believe them or not is entirely up to you.

There is an explanation for why specific ads appear on your Facebook feed.  These are called targeted ads. Targeted advertising is the process of analyzing data about your search habits, purchases, and lifestyle to display advertisements for products that you are more likely to buy.  There are many ways that targeted advertisements algorithms determine what ads to post.  We’re going to look at three of the primary routes below.

  • Facebook Advertising Categories
    Facebook has developed over 52,000 categories as a way of grouping its users.   The social media platform adds people to these groups based on their posts, likes, and life events.   I took a look at the categories that I’ve been placed in to check their accuracy.  While I am not an avid Facebook user, the site had added to me to 24 categories ranging from “Away from hometown,” “Parent of Preteen,” and “Owns: iPhone 7”.  All of the placements were spot on.   These categories are the primary data source for targeted advertising.
  • Facebook Friends
    Another way that Facebook selects the advertisements to show is through your friends.  The site takes note of when you like a post from someone on your friends list.  For example, if you have a friend who posts about camping on a regular basis and you like their posts, the advertising algorithm may add you to a category for “People who like camping”.
  • Facebook Pixel
    The Facebook Pixel is a small snippet of computer code that retailers can add to their website as a way to track visitors to the site.  It allows the retailer to run highly targeted advertising campaigns based on how people interact with the site.  Millions of sites have this code embedded.  This provides the social media giant with additional data about the websites you visit and how you interact with them.
What does this mean to parents?

As a parent, I think it is essential to understand how and why sites collect and analyze browsing data.  It’s not always for advertising purposes.  The data can be used for things such as product development, website design, and predicting trends.   Some companies collect this data for the express purpose of selling it to other companies.  These “data brokers” do not have many online privacy laws to follow so there’s not much to keep them from collecting and selling your data.  In next week’s post, we’ll look at several ways you can limit the data being harvested while you are browsing.

What does this mean to educators?

Educationally,  knowing how all of this works affords the opportunities for relevant conversations in so many content areas.  For example, social studies classes can discuss the privacy issues related to data collection.  Educators in ELA could ask students to research the topic for a paper.  Speech and debate could spend a few days discussing the pros and cons of targeted advertising. Math or Business teachers can create fabricated data sets related to several Facebook Ad categories and then ask their students to determine trends within those data sets.  Today’s students will play a significant role in online privacy regulations in the future. Give your students the opportunity to communicate, collaborate, and think critically about targeted advertising’s role our digital age.


Log in to your Facebook profile and review your advertising settings.  Do the same with your teens.  You may be surprised at how detailed the categories can be.

To review your settings:


What is Facebook Pixel?

More on Facebook Pixel

NPR Article on Data Brokers

Reply All Episode 

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