Find out how much Facebook knows about you

Manage your preferences and take control of the ads you see on Facebook

Posted by Ramin Zamani on 10/22/20

If you have watched the Social Dilemma documentary on Netflix, I am sure you noticed how the user avatar gradually evolved during the story.

From this:
User avatar when starting Facebook

To this:
User avatar after using Facebook for a while

If you haven’t seen it, the Social Dilemma documentary was released in early September on Netflix and quickly became one of the top 10 most popular TV shows that month. I learned about the show from one of our clients that we run Facebook ads for, and I watched it a few days ago. I found it interesting and informative. Especially if you have teenage kids, I recommend you watch it together.

In this documentary, tech experts reveal the psychological triggers built into these platforms to keep users stay longer and keep coming back to consume more content, which gives the platform more advertising spots to sell.

The show also raises the alarm about the unexpected and undesired side-effects that social media can have on society. It illustrates the average social media user as an avatar, specifically a digital voodoo doll manipulated by the algorithms.

Facebook learns more about you as you use it more and more.

It’s true that with every single interaction that you have on Facebook (or other social media), they learn a little bit more about your interests and preferences, which they use to let advertisers more precisely target your profile.

How does Facebook decide which ad to show you?

Here’s how Facebook explains ‘Why you see a particular ad’:

“Our ad system prioritizes what ad to show you based on what advertisers tell us their desired audience is, and we then match it to people who might be interested in that ad. This means we can show you relevant and useful ads without advertisers learning who you are. We don’t sell any individual data that could identify you, like your name.”

Why you see an ad on Facebook

Now, there are many factors in play before an ad is shown at a specific time to a person. Such as the number of ads participating in the auction for the available inventory, the advertiser’s bidding strategy, the quality score of the ad, etc., but what you can control is what data you share with Facebook. So let’s review that.

Understand what data Facebook uses to show you ads

According to Facebook, ads are shown to you based on your activities and your location. What activities, you ask? Here they are:

Your activity across Facebook companies and products:
Such as:

  • Pages you and your friends like
  • Information on your profile
  • Places you check in using Facebook

Your activity with other businesses:
When you share information like your phone number or email address with a business, they may add it to a list that can be matched to your Facebook profile. This is called building a “Custom Audience”.

You may have shared your information with these businesses by:

  • Signing up for an email newsletter
  • Making purchases at retail stores
  • Signing up for a coupon or discount

Your activity on other websites and apps:
Many websites you visit have added a “pixel” on their pages that will let Facebook know what pages you’ve looked at, which products you’ve clicked on or purchased, etc. That’s why you see ads from the websites that you have recently visited on your Facebook newsfeed. This is called “Retargeting”.

And what about your location?
Facebook uses location data to show you ads from advertisers trying to reach people in or near a specific location. They get the information from sources such as:

  • Where you connect to the internet
  • Where you use your phone
  • Your location from your Facebook and Instagram profile

What exactly does Facebook know about you?

Here’s how to find out what information Facebook has gathered about you:

If you are logged in to Facebook, you can directly go here:

Or you can navigate through the Facebook UI. On your desktop, go to Facebook, and:

  1. Click on the little arrow on the top right corner of the navigation bar.
  2. Click on Settings & Privacy link.

Facebook Ad Preferences - step 1 & 2

  1. Click on Settings.

Facebook Ad Preferences - step 3

  1. A new page opens, on the left side menu, click on Ads.

Facebook Ad Preferences - step 4

  1. You should see a page like this, which shows all the different data points Facebook is using about you to show you ads:

Facebook Ad Preferences Page

Now, you can click on different categories and find out a bit more about yourself - at least the version of yourself that Facebook has decided for you!

For example, under Your Interests section, here’s what Facebook has identified as my interests in the ‘News and entertainment’ tab:

Facebook my interests - News

Note that my profile says I live in Orange County, and looks like I might have checked in at the Sleeping Beauty Castle and LAX:
Facebook my interests - Place

To see which companies have specifically built a Custom Audience to run ads for you using your email and or phone number, click on Advertisers and Businesses section. And look at the first tab: Businesses who uploaded and used a list.

You can even click on each company and see the ones who have excluded you from their ads. I am already a member of Amazon Prime Video and don’t own any pets so it makes sense that Amazon doesn’t want to spend their ad dollars on me:

Facebook my interests - Custom Audience Excluded

Note that you can click on the “Don’t Allow” button and remove yourself from the list of the company that’s specifically targeting your profile by using a list. But you have even more control.

How to control Facebook ads

You can click on Ad Settings and adjust a few parameters to allow or not allow certain ads to be shown to you:

Facebook ad controls

Under the Ad Topics section, you can tell Facebook to show you fewer ads about topics such as Alcohol, Parenting, Pets, Social Issues, Elections or Politics:

Facebook ad controls

Remember, while you can control what ads you will see, you cannot stop ads! Facebook will still show you ads because that’s how they’re making their money.

As a business owner and advertiser, social media platforms like Facebook and others, give us tremendous power to efficiently target our ads to a clearly defined audience. However, with this power comes responsibility.

And since there are several bad actors that can and will abuse this power, as consumers and users of these platforms, we all need to be mindful of the fact that each and every interaction on these platforms is being saved and used as a tool to more accurately target us.

What do you think?
Do you have any questions or comments? Connect with me on LinkedIn in/raminzamani or enter your email below to receive my newsletter.

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