Pew Research survey highlights user concerns regarding Facebook algorithms

Over half of the participants are not comfortable with Facebook categorizing them, the study states

After a whirlwind year for Facebook, a Pew Research survey on user response to the company's algorithms showed that 74 percent of users did not know that the site maintained a list of their interests and traits. 

Based on this compilation of interests and traits, Facebook caters a user's ad preferences page through its classification system that focuses on a user's political leanings and ethnic or racial "affinities."

According to the survey, 27 percent of Facebook users said their generated listings were very or not at all accurate. Additionally, 51 percent of those surveyed said that they were not comfortable with Facebook collecting this information. 

For Perri Collins, a social media specialist for W.P. Carey Marketing and Communications, social media platforms such as Facebook offer just as many pros as they do cons.

Collins said that topics like targeted advertisements often make people a bit uneasy, but they also are commonly misunderstood. 

“What’s really important to marketers is that they deliver the best possible things to you," she said. "If you keep getting ads for a brand of dog food and you don’t have a dog, that would be a waste of your time and attention.” 

Collins said awareness is one of the most important things a social media user can have. As long as digital entertainment and media remains a priority for people, data collecting will follow close behind, she added.

However, the user is ultimately in control. 

“As the user, you’re the one typing in the information they’re using and if you don’t want that shared, you just have to be diligent about it," she said.

According to Statista, there were 2.27 billion active Facebook users each month in late 2018, a noticeable increase from the 1.86 billion amount of active monthly users in late 2016. 

Jeremy Taylor, an avid Facebook user and freshman majoring in unmanned aerial systems, said that he “doesn’t really care” how much of his shopping and browsing information is collected.

“We all sign up for it knowingly — it’s a part of the terms and agreement," he said. "I think a lot of people get freaked out by it because they think it’s a person going through their information as opposed to a computer."

For Taylor, dependence on social media is more harmful than targeted ads and algorithms. 

“I think that even if people have a problem with social media sites using their information, they still don’t leave the site. They can’t," he said. "For a lot of people, social media is too big of a part of their lives to just quit.” 

As an early adopter of social media, Collins said that it is often hard to quit social media due to the amount of connection that sites like Facebook offer. 

Collins said she personally uses Facebook to keep in touch with her extended family: Quitting Facebook would mean cutting off dozens of ties with people she only sees in person every few years. 

Associate dean for faculty and research and professor in the W.P. Carey School of Business Michael Goul said one of the most important things to remember regarding algorithms is ethics. 

"We train a lot of students in business analytics, and we try to ensure that they think about ethics," Goul said. "It's a very meaningful part of our curriculum."

Goul said it's a good business move for companies to provide trust that they won't abuse users' information. The consequences, as seen by the Cambridge Analytica Facebook scandal, could lead to severe mistrust and loss of business. 

Despite any distrust, social media continues to grow, gaining momentum in daily life and offering job opportunities. 

As the social media assistant for Barrett, the Honors College, Katy Anderson, a sophomore majoring in journalism and mass communication, uses social media and Facebook algorithms for her on-campus job. 

“Using algorithms is usually a great tool to reach people, especially when promoting school events," Anderson said. "Social media makes it a lot easier than passing out flyers and you reach way more people."

She said that she has personally been connected to brands and product that she loves through targeted ads. Anderson also said that she too has been a bit alarmed when she talks about where to eat and gets a Chick-fil-A ad on social media immediately after. 

“With the ads and data collecting, it’s a new thing that I’ll admit creeps me out a little bit," she said. "But at the same time, it has the opportunity to do a lot of good for a lot of people.” 

Reach the reporter at and follow @ReinhartKatelyn on Twitter.

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