Commentary on usage of Facebook ads

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The basis for this post is the following article by The Daily Beast:

Let me preface this by saying this is not a comment on politics or who should have won the US election in 2016.

It's pretty much been confirmed now that the Russian government has meddled with the last US election. One of their main avenues seems to have been Facebook. With its 2 billion users (as of June 2017), it's a massive, MASSIVE platform for any kind of mass information spread. Let that sink in a bit: 2 billion people log in to Facebook at least once a month. That's over 26% of the world population, if you consider everyone currently alive. It's way more than that if you remove children under 5 (or under 13, since, if I recall correctly, you're technically not allowed to have a Facebook account until you're 13) and the older generation (80+ years old). Facebook is an absolute giant right now - they're Alexa rank 3, behind only and There is no doubt at all that Facebook can be used to reach a large amount of people in a short amount of time, especially through its ad program.

According to that article I linked above, you can get 1000 "impressions" - in my opinion a misleading word here - on Facebook for as little as $1. One thousand people can see your ad for a meager $1. A coffee is the equivalent of 2500 people seeing your ad. This low price, coupled with Facebook's enormous Big Data collection and their frankly quite incredible and impressive Big Data parsing engine, means you can actually target specific sectors of the world population with your ads. I remember seeing a picture of an acquaintance on Facebook as her cover photo - it was her with five people around her, sitting at a restaurant or a booth of sorts, all with smiles on her faces. It seemed a bit like a family photo, the kind you get when you visit your grandparents. As the "alt" argument for the tag in that page's HTML, which is what will show up instead of a broken picture image in case the image doesn't load, the Facebook page had something along the lines of... "Six people, smiling, possibly a family". Let me make this very clear: Facebook could recognize people and their facial expressions in a picture and make assumptions based off of that. Here's another, more jarring example:

AI has a 91% chance of correctly guessing your sexuality based off of five pictures. Obviously the more pictures of you there are, the higher that number is. I think it's also a safe bet to say that most people have more than five pictures of themselves on Facebook. More than likely, Facebook knows everything about you, even if you haven't explicitly told it much. Their AI can likely read between the lines and tell you what you're thinking before even you know what it is that you're thinking.

This is simultaneously amazing, incredible, and horrifying.

It's awesome how we have developed technology up to a point that such things are possible. Information spreads across the globe faster than ever before. I can watch a live news show in Japan wherever I am. I can read about my friend's dog even if I'm 8000 kilometers away. I can watch a baseball game being played right now in California.

On the other hand, it's horrifying because of how much influence can be exerted over people with this. It's so, so easy to misuse it and say... influence the outcome of elections in a country half a world away. Intelligence agencies are having a field day with this. By subtly placing pre-produced content in our minds through smart ad placement, we can be influenced to think or do certain things. Showing us just articles that are left or right-leaning, or selecting information from our giant pool of worldwide news can give us the impression that things are a certain way even if they're not. I do realize that the last couple of sentences sound very... tinfoil-hat-y, and that I just used the term "impression". Maybe that's where the Facebook "impressions" come from.

But I digress. Showing us just news about a certain religious group killing others via terrorist acts, for example, will provoke the thought that all over the world, terrorist acts are occurring - even if there really aren't that many. Extensive coverage of airplane crashes such as the 9525 Germanwings Flight or the 370 Malaysia Airlines Flight show us how dangerous airplanes can be - but they don't show us the whole picture; that being the sheer number of flights occurring every day with no incident. Not to say airplanes aren't dangerous, but given the security measures and preventive repairs for airplanes, they end up being one of the safest forms of travel. And yet... many of us erroneously believe flying is far more dangerous than driving a car.

What can we do to prevent things like this from happening? I don't think I have an answer for this yet. Regulating news is a terrible, terrible idea. That makes it so much easier for governments to control what the general populace knows or doesn't. But... we also can't allow this blatant abuse of technology for evil means to go on unhindered. Most probably, the way forward is teaching people how to use technology in order to gain a sense over whole situations rather than just one facet; gain a "3D image" of something rather than just a 2D shadow of it. But what government would work against itself?