It's happened again -- a gay man says he's been "outed" by Facebook, in this case by an ad, even though he says he had never revealed his sexual orientation or talked about being gay.
Late last year, two students from the University of Texas at Austin said they were outed to their families, after joining their school's “Queer Chorus” and being added to the chorus’ Facebook discussion page.
This time around, a man known only as Matt said a “coming out” ad was placed on his public newsfeed for all to see, although he never discussed his sexual orientation on Facebook, “liked” anything related to being gay or joined any discussion groups that would reveal his orientation.
Here’s what Matt told the website BuzzFeed in an email:
“As many LGBT individuals know, for a time, the most closely held secret we have is our sexuality. Several nights ago, I texted a close and dear friend for advice on revealing such sensitive personal information. The next morning, I woke up to a ‘sponsored story’ on my Facebook page that asked ‘Coming out? Need help?’ How did Facebook know such a specific ad would apply to my profile?”
Matt was probably outed by an algorithm.
You know what they are—those nasty little calculations that sites like Facebook use to determine consumers' lifestyle, shopping habits and interests, in order to tailor specific ads and messages for them.
So if you’re “liking” a posted ad by Macy’s let’s say, you better believe you’ll be seeing more ads about upcoming sales and expensive new products that you'll probably never want. It’s just the way social media pages and companies are doing things these days.
How did Facebook know?
But again, what was strange to Matt was that he never “liked” anything that would reveal to Facebook that he was gay. The only thing he did was tweet a close friend, asking him for advice about coming out to his parents, that’s it, however, somehow, the coming out add was still placed on his newsfeed.
The actual ad was from the self-proclaimed “Coming out Coach” Rick Clemons, who helps people reveal to their families that they’re gay.
In the past, Facebook has said it doesn’t read the messages of its users to determine which ads to display, which was again confirmed by a Facebook spokesperson who contacted BuzzFeed to tell the company's side of the story pertaining to Matt.
But the question remains, how did Facebook know that Matt may have been interested in ads targeted to the LGBT community?
Other than his Twitter conversation, it seems the only thing Matt did was comment on a friend's Facebook post about Sen. Rob Portman (R-Ohio) announcing that after he had changed his position on gay marraige after learning his son was gay.
That could be enough, since Facebook can take all sorts of your posted information and target you for certain ads and sales pitches.
It was in 2010, when Saikat Guha of Microsoft and Bin Cheng and Paul Francis of the Max Planck Institute for Software Systems, said that Facebook could and would unintentionally out LGBT people.
So Guha, Cheng and Francis warn people to be extremely mindful on what they click and comment on, especially if they want to control what’s being revealed about them to other users.
“The danger with such ads, unlike the gay bar ad where the target demographic is blatantly obvious, is that the user reading the ad text would have no idea that by clicking it he would reveal to the advertiser both his sexual preference and a unique identifier (cookie, IP address, or e-mail address if he signs up on the advertiser’s site),” said the researchers.
“Furthermore, such deceptive ads are not uncommon; indeed exactly half of the 66 ads shown exclusively to gay men (more than 50 times) during our experiment did not mention 'gay' anywhere in the ad text."
The researchers said they would like to see Facebook change a few things, when it comes to how the company uses algorithms to link certain ads to certain users.
“Do not allow advertisers to target advertisements based on sensitive categories, such as religion, sexuality, or political affiliation,” they wrote. And “disclose, directly below the ad, the fact the ad was targeted based on a specific profile attribute and state there which attribute that was.”
“Users should also be told, after clicking on the ad, but before being directed to the site, that the advertiser may be able to learn this sensitive information about them, simply by visiting the site.”
Whether Facebook decides to make these changes remains to be seen, but until then, beware of what you click, tweet, comment or post, because you should be the only person who’s in control of telling the public want you want them to know.
You certainly don’t want to leave it up to Mark Zuckerberg, do you?