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Facebook Once Again Denies Eavesdropping

Written by Jo Gardner: Digital marketing manager.
· 4 minute read

“We don’t – and have never – used your microphone for ads. Just not true,”

Towards the end of last year, Facebook once again denied listening to our conversations in order to serve us highly targeted ads.

It’s a conspiracy theory that’s been around for a while now, so we thought we’d investigate further; is there any possibility that Facebook are bluffing? Or could there be other explanations to these creepily accurate ads…

A happy coincidence?

If what Facebook are saying is true, why are we so often shown ads for a product we’ve literally ‘just been talking about’?

Many are putting it purely down to coincidence; with technology so advanced these days and the likes of Black Mirror planting paranoia into our brains, it’s no wonder we’re convincing ourselves otherwise. But then there’s only so often something needs to happen for a coincidence to become inconceivable…

People are finding other explanations which could be plausible. One being the ‘Baader-Meinhoff’ phenomenon (aka ‘frequency illusion’) – something that we’ve probably all experienced at some point. As soon as we read about something, or it’s mentioned in conversation, we suddenly start to notice it more and more. We may well have been shown ads on Facebook for a particular product in the past, it’s only now that it’s been brought up in conversation that we start to notice them. This would give the illusion that Facebook ‘heard’ the discussion and is now showing you ads.

Or, could Facebook’s algorithm simply be so sophisticated that even if we think we haven’t provided Facebook with the data it needs to show us these ads, in a roundabout way we have? Perhaps we shouldn’t underestimate the power of Facebook’s targeting and the vast amount of data it holds about us, without them needing to listen too.

Why the microphone?

Facebook has explicitly said that they will only access your microphone if you have given permission, and for the features that require it (Facebook live, Facebook stories etc.). The same goes for Messenger – they require access to your microphone should you want to make video calls through the app.

Fair enough, but the fact that they do have access to our microphones only adds to people’s suspicions that they are listening. And if they wanted to, they probably could.

Facebook addressed this with the following..

Facebook does not use your phone’s microphone to inform ads or to change what you see in News Feed. Some recent articles have suggested that we must be listening to people’s conversations in order to show them relevant ads. This is not true. We show ads based on people’s interests and other profile information — not what you’re talking out loud about.

I do believe that Facebook is listening. On several occasions I have been served an ad almost instantly after a conversation on the topic.

Nothing within my profile, ‘likes’ or browsing history could have lead Facebook to show me these particular ads.

Or could it…?

At the end of the day, any truth in these allegations could be detrimental for Facebook. For now, it’s easier to believe that their targeting is simply outsmarting us.