By Charlotte Armstrong
Sifting through Facebook’s ads is no longer like mining for gold, but rather finding yourself at a buffet being served things you never said you liked or wanted, and now your plate is suddenly overflowing.
Like most bad ideas, it started late at night. Scrolling absently through my Facebook feed, I stumbled upon an ad that proves the algorithm is doing its job far too well. A series of plush toys shaped like plague doctors! How cute! How weirdly relevant to current affairs! I clicked through, made a purchase, put my phone away and headed to bed.
In the cold, cruel light of the morning, I re-examined my purchase as it popped up again on my feed – this time I took note of the series of angry reacts and comments below it. They all suggested it was a scam or that the toy actually belonged to another company. I sent an email trying to follow up on the order but it bounced back: the email address didn’t exist.
It appears I was duped.
My story is hardly a new or original one – Facebook has such a big problem with fake ads they’ve had to roll out tools to report them both here in Australia and the UK. It’s estimated these scams have cost consumers millions of US dollars last year alone.
Now, of course, you’re probably thinking: ‘everyone knows that Facebook ads may be fake, of course it was a scam! I’m a tech-savvy millennial who could never fall for such a thing’.
And I mean, I get it: you’re smart enough to be suspicious of the ads Facebook shows you. But have you ever considered why they show you what they do?
What you see is the result of decades of data mining algorithm research, which, if it wasn’t so insidious, would be super impressive. Facebook insights know (among other things) your age, location, what you like, things you’ve reacted to, how long you’ve looked at something, what you click on, where you’ve clicked before and where you’ll likely click after. All of it is optimised for longer and more involved interaction with the site as possible. Interestingly, lots of people are unhappy with the way Facebook categorises them, but that’s to be expected from machine learning.
And then using all that data, they target you with ads. Some days it feels like laser precision. Others, it’s closer to stormtroopers firing in a confined space. But as the years have rolled on, they’ve been finding new ways to bring the ads closer to home.
Ever had a conversation and discovered ads that are spookily relevant within an eerily close timeframe? That’s a direct by-product of a series of downright terrifying (and often hidden) features such as the infamous ‘off-Facebook activity’, where users had to manually turn off the ability for Facebook to track users to third party sites. Facebook denies that it’s spying on users, of course.
So how do the scammers fit into this framework? By creating something that looks similar enough to a webstore, they then can use images of products they don’t have to steal from any unsuspecting customer, often disappearing once the scam is complete. Facebook doesn’t have much of a vetting process for an ad’s authenticity before they wind up on the platform, leaving the onus instead on the rather mediocre reporting systems mentioned above.
There have always been scam artists and scams – my history degree comes in handy here – such as some of the oldest written consumer complaints about a merchant selling the wrong grade of copper. But that doesn’t make it any easier to accept the sensation of being tricked. Part of how any transaction works has to do with a mutual sense of trust on the part of both buyer and seller – it’s the law of equivalent exchange. You can’t get something without trading something of equal value in return.
That’s what makes the oversaturation of Facebook ads so insidious.
If there’s a line between content and advertisement, it grows thinner by the minute. And with this overload of advertising ‘white noise’ comes absolute apathy about even being advertised to, which makes us vulnerable to scams.
Is the solution then to simply remove all the ads (here’s a handy guide for how to do that)? Remove yourself from social media? Move to the wilderness in a yurt?
Now, that last one might be a little extreme, so instead let’s try something else. If the problem is that we’re becoming so desensitised to our ad-centric world that these fakes are left to fester, then let’s stop looking away. Let’s critically engage with our advertisements, because as most high school students will tell you, the moment you are forced to critically engage with a text you immediately lose all that passive enjoyment which the white noise relies on. So, in the spirit of wasting scammers’ time, try engaging ads that don’t look quite right on your feed. Ask questions about the phrasing! The word choice! The intended impact framed against Foucault’s theories (okay, that last one’s a little mean).
In fact, I think this makes a stunning litmus test for genuine brands and phony imposters–if you pose a question about the use of an adjective within the ad and get a genuine response (even if it’s just confusion), that’s one tick towards it being a genuine brand.
As for me, I’m not holding out much hope for my plush toy. Just another victim of the plague of scams, it seems.
Postscript: Once I came to the conclusion this was a less-than-reputable business, I set myself a reminder to dispute the payment in roughly two months. I figured, at the very least, I’d be able to get my money back and move on to other plush toys. Maybe even a whale shark bag, because I am a giant child with an office job.
Naturally, a package arrives within about a day of that reminder. I steel myself and grab the scissors. I pull out a bundle of black fur, inspecting for damage. He’s… not defective? He’s all there, stuffed well, with his little necklace.
I’m overjoyed. Confused, certainly, given the experience of ordering them, but overjoyed nonetheless. The doctor (Robert) now lives with my sister. The nurse (Belissa) stays with me.
It appears my plague doctors successfully warded off the curse of Facebook scams, for now. Here’s hoping that extends to my soon-arriving whale shark bag. What, you thought I was kidding?
Charlotte Armstrong is a student in her final semester of the Master of Creative Writing, Publishing and Editing at the University of Melbourne. She was the lead copyeditor on Mer with Grattan Street Press, and currently works in curriculum development with a TESOL company with the hopes of eventually becoming a published author herself. Given the nature of the article, she’d rather you didn’t have access to her social media, as all it would do is expose how much of a nerd she actually is.
Cover photo by Annie Spratt on Unsplash