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Facebook's ad targeting has created a creepy image problem it can't shake

by Leonore Escalante (2020-11-27)


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Facebook is having a hard time fighting a specific conspiracy theory.
Joel Saget/AFP/Getty Images


Carl Mazur, a photographer in Utah, freaked out when he saw an ad for Rokinon camera lenses pop up on Facebook. That's because it appeared 20 minutes after Mazur's chiropractor mentioned the brand to him during a visit.Mazur had heard stories about the social network eavesdropping on conversations through the mics on "That's when I was a true believer," Mazur said, adding that he had never searched or shopped for Rokinon lenses before. "I was like, 'This is weird.'" it listens to our conversations to serve ads. CEO even told Congress the company doesn't engage in the practice. Experts and analysts say Facebook doesn't need our , and . Even if Facebook doesn't eavesdrop, the pervasive belief that it listens to us adds to its reputation for poor practices. The perception is so pronounced that Zuckerberg referenced it at Facebook's developers conference last month, saying his company didn't have "the strongest


























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The reputation problem won't hit Facebook's growth anytime soon. It's still the world's largest social network with 2.38 billion people logging in every month. But little by little, analysts say, rumors like the eavesdropping conspiracy could change the way we use the social network. If we're worried Facebook is listening to our conversations, we might stop sharing some of our personal data, the information it uses to target ads so precisely. That would make it less valuable to advertisers trying to sell to us and, over time, could affect its massive advertising revenue, which totaled $55 billion last year. "If more users start to feel like they actually are being surveilled through audio, they'll change their behaviors," said Jennifer Grygiel, an assistant professor of communications at Syracuse University. "So even if it's untrue, it could impact the way they use apps and their mobile phone and how they engage in ensuring their own privacy."Users, for example, might turn off their phones if they're at a personal event, having a private conversation or in a therapy session, Grygiel suggested. They could also be more wary generally and share less information or tracking, which would deprive Facebook of opportunities to learn more about you. They could also turn on ad blockers, which would hit Facebook's revenue.Already, analysts say, Facebook users are becoming more careful about how much information they give out."There's a lot of people who are much more conscious about what they share on social media," said Fatemeh Khatibloo, an analyst at Forrester. "There are people who don't know how to control what they're sharing on social media, so they're not sharing as much."Poking the conspiracy theory
Forrester put the conspiracy theory to the test, looking at how data flows into the Facebook app when a smartphone's microphone access was turned on and off. Forrester couldn't find any evidence the social network was eavesdropping, Khatibloo says. CNET reporters also conducted a casual test to see if conversations about specific topics would be followed by Facebook ads about those subjects. We didn't find enough evidence that Facebook was










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