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  • Social networks target us with targeted ads and introductions
  • Users are not actively tracked, but advanced algorithms process their data
  • Targeting our thoughts is not far behind
Facebook shows targeted ads for the users. Solen Felyisa/Unsplash

Social networks target us with targeted ads and introductions

A TikTok user posted a video in which he shared a story of discussing the price of toilet paper with his sister. Soon after, while browsing Facebook, he noticed advertisements for different types of toilet paper. Later, he and his girlfriend discussed a computer video game, which he had never talked about or been interested in. Predictably, Facebook soon started offering him the chance to try the game[1].

Many stories like this exist, and you don't have to look far. Many of us have probably talked about our dream of visiting an exotic country and soon enough, we were surfing the Internet and came across offers for a trip to that destination. After complaining that our computer was not working properly, it was not long before we saw advertisements for these very devices. Sometimes it even seems that the profiles of people we have just met appear on social networks, and advertisements for products or services appear as soon as we think about them.

Indeed, in recent years, there have been constant comments about Facebook and other major social networks listening to us through the microphone on our phones. While Facebook denied this theory for some time, in 2016, when the various stories and discussions about big companies' eavesdropping were just getting more popular, Facebook responded with this:

Facebook doesn't use your phone's microphone to inform you about ads or change what you see in your news feed. Some recent articles have suggested that we need to listen 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 on what you're talking about out loud.

Facebook later clarified that the app only uses the microphone if the user gives the app permission to use the microphone and is using a function that clearly requires a microphone, such as audio or video recording[2].

"We understand that sometimes ads can be so specific that it looks like we have to listen to your conversations through a microphone, but that's not the case. We only use your microphone if you have permitted us and you are actively using the feature that requires a microphone. If you want to have more control over how your information affects the ads we show you, there are several places you can do this. You can review some of the settings related to specific ads in your ad settings, or you can review your information and remove what you don't want us to use," the social platform's rules state.

The suggestion of new Facebook friends also works by tracking individuals' locations. It also tracks phone contacts, mutual friends, and the list of friends on other social networking apps. In addition, the algorithm considers machine learning techniques to improve its accuracy over time. It also finds side interactions with suggested friends, taking into account friend requests, message exchanges, and other interactions.

Social media platforms claim that they are not listening to people. Austin Distel/Unsplash
Social media platforms claim that they are not listening to people. Austin Distel/Unsplash

Users are not actively tracked, but advanced algorithms process their data

Platforms such as Facebook, Instagram and others do not, at least officially, actively listen to our conversations. Obviously, this would be not only illegal but also very impractical in terms of the logistics of storing and analyzing such data. However, this does not mean that mass surveillance of users does not take place at all. Algorithms and other technologies are being applied to this[3].

So, if your friends tell you about the time they went to Japan and fell in love with Japanese cuisine, a few hours later you will find an advertisement for a new sushi restaurant in the city in your Facebook newsfeed. This is the result of sophisticated tracking algorithms.

Facebook uses location tracking, online behavioral analysis, and even friendships to deliver targeted ads and promotions. If your online friend has interacted with a restaurant (followed, liked, etc.) and you were in the same location as them, Facebook's algorithm logically concludes that you may also be interested in Japanese food.

These algorithms go beyond location tracking. They compare your interests, demographics, and online activities with those of your friends.

If your profiles are similar and your friend is interested in a product, Facebook sees this as a sign to show you the same ad.

Moreover, sometimes it seems that Facebook even knows what we are thinking. This is not complete fiction but a good data analysis. Every click and share helps to understand the user's interests so the platform can show relevant ads and promotions [4].

China is developing tools used for the surveillance of peoples' brains. Li Yang/Unsplash
China is developing tools used for the surveillance of peoples' brains. Li Yang/Unsplash

Targeting our thoughts is not far behind

While we still think that having our thoughts read and being offered advertising of one kind or another is a fantasy, brain-scanning devices are already being used by millions of people worldwide every day.

In China, for example, such technology is "useful" in the workplace: there have even been cases of people being sent home from their workplace because brain readings showed that they could not concentrate, were not thinking about their work, and so on.

US experts warn that China has already filled the US market with its dangerous brain-control technologies to such an extent that "mind-reading" devices are available to almost anyone who wants them and can spare a pretty penny[5].

For example, devices such as Flowtime, which are sold both in the US and abroad, are manufactured by Chinese technology giant Enter Electronic Technology. And Entertech not only collects brain activity data from its users, the company also collects people's personal data, GPS signals, sensors from other devices, IP addresses, operating systems, referring websites and other pages visited.

For the past several years, China's ruling Communist Party has also been engaged in a campaign to transform the minds and consciousness of its citizens. The Chinese Communists believe that thought determines action, so if millions of Chinese can be made to 'think right', they will 'act right'. Perhaps in the future, we will be taught to think this way about this or that product, service, or other purchase that is offered to us.