It’s one of the most common Internet conspiracy theories: Facebook is using my phone’s microphone to listen in on my conversations. How else could Facebook know to serve me such on-the-nose super-targeted advertisements? Like the time I went shopping with my wife, Jody, and I asked her which aisle the peanut butter was in and, suddenly, an ad for Skippy appeared in my Facebook feed.
Search Google to ask if Facebook is tracking what you say in real life and you’ll get 220 million results. Facebook denies doing anything of the sort, of course. CEO Mark Zuckerberg even said so twice, on the record, in front of the US Congress.
The real answer to how Facebook seems to know what you want even before you do is more unnerving than the conspiracy theory, not just because of what it says about the creepy state of online advertising, but of what it can teach us about how we relate to the biggest questions in the universe: Who created human beings? What caused the Big Bang? Is there a God?
The topic caught my interest when I was listening to an episode of the tech podcast Reply All. A listener named J.P. called the show to talk about the time his mother, Debbie, came to visit from Oklahoma. On her way through security, the TSA confiscated an oversized bottle of Debbie’s favorite perfume.
When she arrived in San Francisco, Debbie asked her son if they could stop at an airport perfume store. Within a few minutes, an ad for a women’s perfume retailer had appeared in J.P.’s Facebook app.
Alex Goldman, one of Reply All’s hosts, was determined to get to the bottom of these online coincidences. He spoke to ProPublica investigative reporter Julia Angwin, who explained to him that Facebook tracks some 52,000 different attributes about its users, getting as granular as “a person who likes to pretend to text in awkward situations.”
Facebook’s algorithms know what you click on and how much time you spend on a page or post – not only on Facebook but all over the Web. Facebook has a technology that helps businesses decipher where their Web traffic is coming from. All they need to do is embed a bit of code on their websites. (Full disclosure: I have it on my own sites.)
The flipside: it gives Facebook that much more information to improve what it offers to advertisers.
Facebook buys data from third-party consumer credit agencies like Equifax that have files on not only your credit score but your income, your marital status, your legal history and the size of your house.
These data brokers also manage loyalty programs in brick-and-mortar stores. “They know how often you’ve been buying diapers or cold medicine or birth control,” Goldman explained.
Facebook has even patented a method to use your previous location data in conjunction with the location data of people you know in order to predict where you’ll be in the future.
When Debbie lost her perfume to the TSA, she searched on her phone for a shop where she could buy a new bottle. But it was too expensive, so she didn’t complete the transaction. Facebook logged that.
Facebook also knew she was at an airport, so she must be traveling somewhere. When she arrived in San Francisco, Facebook guessed that she was visiting her son (since Facebook knows their relationship status) and displayed the perfume ad on J.P.’s phone.
No surreptitious listening involved at all.
WHEN GOLDMAN laid all this out to J.P., though, he didn’t buy it. He still held that the microphone explanation was correct.
Goldman’s Reply All cohost then challenged Goldman to take some calls from other people who believe Facebook is listening to their conversations. “I would be surprised if you could find literally one person in the world who thinks this is happening, who you could tell them what you’ve learned, and they would be like, ‘Yeah, you’re right.’”
Goldman took up the challenge… and failed miserably, one call after another. Goldman’s conclusion: when the truth is so complicated – as it is with how Facebook is really guessing your perfume or peanut butter preferences – people will opt for the simpler answer.
As I listened to Goldman’s inability to move listeners from their erroneous microphone beliefs, it occurred to me the same principle is at play when it comes to much bigger, even cosmic issues.
I’ve often wondered why some people, when confronted with what seems to me irrefutable evidence about topics such as human evolution or what caused the Big Bang, default to “God did it.”
Facebook provides a possible reason.
The human body is incredibly complicated. DNA and the myriad of specialized functions that keep us alive are, for most laypeople, incomprehensible. Wouldn’t it be easier to say “a supernatural being created us ready-to-go?”
Same with the universe. Even if one accepts there was a Big Bang billions of years ago, what came before that? The simplest answer for our limited brains: God.
We use similar shortcuts in other areas. Take healthcare: we don’t know what causes certain diseases, so let’s blame it on vaccinations or genetically-modified foods.
If there’s one thing I’ve learned from the Facebook-is-listening conspiracy theory, it’s that the simplest answers aren’t always the correct ones, but our brains are going to default there anyway, often to our own cognitive detriment.
Something to keep in mind as we ponder the ineffable this Shavuot.The writer’s book, Totaled: The Billion-Dollar Crash of the Startup that Took on Big Auto, Big Oil and the World, is available on Amazon and other online booksellers. brianblum.com
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