Social Media

Facebook Told Advertisers How It Could Target Vulnerable Teens

"Anxious" and "overwhelmed" Australians as young as 14 were swept up by algorithm, though Facebook said it was never used to target ads

Social Media
Illustration: Tara Jacoby
May 01, 2017 at 10:24 AM ET

This article was updated on May 1 to include a statement from Facebook

Facebook executives have promoted their advertising capabilities by marketing the fact they can systematically collect data concerning the emotional states of people as young as high school age, according to a leaked document obtained by the Australian.

The algorithm-driven effort to know when 6.4 million young Australians (some as young as 14 years old) were experiencing “moments when [they] need a confidence boost” was based on “internal Facebook data.” These moments, in practice, would be able to tell when these users were feeling “stressed,” “defeated,” “overwhelmed,” “anxious,” “nervous,” “stupid,” “silly,” “useless,” and “a failure.” The leaked document revealed that Facebook paid special attention to highlighting how it was capable of finding when users were looking to lose weight.

When contacted about the leaked document, which the Australian said may breach the country’s codes about marketing to children, a Facebook spokesperson declined to state whether or not this method of data-collecting has been in use anywhere else in the world.

“We have opened an investigation to understand the process failure and improve our oversight,” the company told the Australian newspaper in an e-mail. “We will undertake disciplinary and other processes as appropriate.”

When contacted by Mashable, a spokesperson of the social network also said that the insights collected on this demographic was not ever used to target ads, in practice.

A Facebook spokesperson told Vocativ that the premise of the Australian article was misleading, but acknowledged its research protocols were not followed.

“Facebook does not offer tools to target people based on their emotional state,” the statement said. “The analysis done by an Australian researcher was intended to help marketers understand how people express themselves on Facebook. It was never used to target ads and was based on data that was anonymous and aggregated.”

This is not the first time Facebook has gotten in trouble for its advertising practices. Last year, ProPublica found that the site was allowing advertisers to target the social networking platform’s users by race, potentially violating the U.S. Fair Housing Act. The company quickly backtracked when faced with a lawsuit, stating it would cease using “ethnic affinity” as a means of showing targeted ads for housing, employment, and credit.

Facebook is among the biggest digital advertising powerhouses in the business, together with Google accounting for over three-quarters of the entire U.S. digital ad market.