To be honest, I don’t know if Facebook is listening. At the request of a local television station, I shared my expertise about a story they wanted to cover. Although I know that Facebook is tracking what you do on your phone, I can’t confirm or deny that they are listening. And one small demonstration isn’t going to tell you that.
During the interview, I was asked to test the idea that Facebook could hear your conversations through your phone and would serve advertising based on certain keywords. I opened my Messenger app (a Facebook product) and typed a message to a friend while talking about going on an African safari and riding in a Jeep. When I checked my News Feed, a friend’s post that had been updated three hours earlier was at the top and a VW ad was to the side. That particularly friend gets a lot of engagement from me as well as from her 2,000+ Facebook friends. We also have 40 mutual friends. Her posts are likely to become top stories on my feed. As far as Volkswagen goes, I drive a VW Passat and recently did a study about the company’s crisis response to the emissions scandal.
After the demonstration, I made the following statement in the interview:
“That is kind of weird,” she laughed. “I’m still not so sure this isn’t just coincidence.” I still think it’s a coincidence. And notice what I said right after that: “I don’t think Facebook is really listening to our conversations.”
Earlier in the interview, I said, “I don’t think that people realize how much Facebook is tracking every move we’re making online. Anything that you’re doing on your phone, Facebook is watching.” Watching, not listening. Never said listening. And by watching I mean tracking.
I should add that I was also googling African safaris earlier in the day, and it was just the first thing that came to mind when asked to create a demonstration by the reporter. However, neither the Googling or the talking caused an advertisement about a safari to be served, only a post by a friend. I have never heard of a Google search impacting the algorithm that determines the presence of posts by friends in the News Feed, and I don’t believe my talking into the phone impacted it either. So it wasn’t even relevant to mention at the time.
The story has become global news, and I have been named as the professor who has issued a warning that Facebook is listening to conversations through your phone. Facebook has even responded with a statement. I’m getting emails, calls, and tweets from reporters around the world who want to know more. Several people have also reached out to me to share their personal stories, which are compelling and somewhat frightening. I know there is a popular thread on Reddit that deals with this topic. So maybe there is something here that deserves further study and exploration, but I’m not personally issuing a warning about Facebook based on this weak anecdotal evidence.
I feel the news stories that state I made this claim have hurt my reputation to some extent. No researcher would make this declaration based on one demonstration. Such a conclusion could only be drawn after an empirical research study involving many more observations.
I’ve participated in two follow-up stories that have done a good job at trying to set the record straight, one with Zoe Kleinman of the BBC and one with Tim Hattrick of the podcast Scared Sh!tless. I appreciate these reporters for their willingness to not get caught up in the hype and give me an opportunity to tell my side of the story.
In the end, I didn’t expose that Facebook is listening to conversations, but I think we all learned that the world is listening to any story involving technology use and privacy.