Facebook advertising can be targeted at a specific person

January 9, 2022

Listen to this article

Facebook advertising can be targeted at a specific person

Here’s a horror story with a message.

A piece of research undertaken by scientists shows that an advertising campaign on Facebook can target a specific person, with the campaign being based only on four unique interests assigned to the user by the social network.

Personalization of online advertising based on our search history and preferences is not a new phenomenon, as it has been developing over many years. However, this new study highlights the fact that ads can be personalized and sent to a specific person via the Facebook ad platform using just the user’s interests.

This reveals a potential serious privacy issue, according to the team of researchers.

What the researchers say: “It allows hyper-personalized ads to be created that may have a greater effect on the user,” explains the lead author.

There are two types of data within this framework: firstly, data that directly reveals an individual’s identity (such as their ID No., phone number, or email address), which require the individual’s consent for companies to use them, and secondly, data that cannot be attributed to a particular user, such as their interests, gender, or age. “What if we can identify an individual using Facebook without their permission just by combining their interests?” the researchers asked.

In the study, the scientists demonstrated that very little user information—as few as four rare and specific interests—makes an individual unique in a database consisting of billions of users. Previous studies have pointed to this, however, they worked with a much smaller database of users. This ability to segment users in a very specific manner is called “nanotargeting.” In practical terms, it has been demonstrated that this can be done on Facebook at almost zero cost. In other words, reaching an individual user among the 2,800 million active profiles on the social network is easy and cheap.

To demonstrate this, researchers conducted an experiment: they created 21 advertising campaigns that were intended to reach three of the authors of this work. “On the one hand, we are the advertiser on Facebook and, on the other, the advertisement is targeted at each of us. We built a model to see how many interests we would need in order to reach a specific person with a high probability, then we validated it using the campaigns,” explained the researchers.

“By combining 5 random interests, the ad did not reach the chosen user. However, the probability of success increased as the number of interests rose to 7, 9, etc. However, only 4 interests are required, if they are very rare and specific interests.”

From a marketing point of view, this option could be extremely useful for companies that want to create hyper-personalized campaigns for their customers.

However, from a user protection perspective “what we are actually asking of the advertising platforms is that they take steps that prevent nanotargeting. The advertising platform should ensure that the advertisement must reach at least 1000 users in order to protect an individual’s privacy,” concludes the lead researcher.

So, what? This is a brilliant and creative piece of research. AI is being used to rob us of our individuality, our privacy and to persuade us in ways which profit others and not us and increase inequality. This is a dangerous land we’re entering, and we seem oblivious of the peril. Rather like climate change, really.

For more information on social media click here. For more on AI click here.

Dr Bob Murray

Bob Murray, MBA, PhD (Clinical Psychology), is an internationally recognised expert in strategy, leadership, influencing, human motivation and behavioural change.

Join the discussion

Join our tribe

Subscribe to Dr. Bob Murray’s Today’s Research, a free weekly roundup of the latest research in a wide range of scientific disciplines. Explore leadership, strategy, culture, business and social trends, and executive health.

Thank you for subscribing.
Oops! Something went wrong while submitting the form. Check your details and try again.