News Facebook’s outing gay users inadvertently has been reported before, and it seems yet again the social network’s notoriously spooky algorithms were spot on — leading the man to suspect that Facebook was able to access content from his text messages. (Which Facebook confirms it does not do.)
Facebook outing gay users is something we’ve seen crop up again and again, and to be fair, it’s not like the site is aggressively and purposely disclosing sexual orientation of closeted Facebookers clearly — but it’s a case of the social network being too good at what they do, and the huge crux of Facebook privacy in general.
Just in the second half of 2012, stories cropped up in August and October about difficulties not fully out users have experienced when Facebook revealed their sexual orientation through targeted advertising.
And frustratingly, each time, users are advised not to put something on Facebook if they don’t want people to find out — but that’s not how it happens, and users need to be aware that it doesn’t matter what you tell Facebook. What Facebook knows about you is entirely a different story.
From my own personal Facebook usage, these algorithms are clearly at work even in the absence of direct information. As a social media professional using the space overwhelmingly to interact with co-workers, I keep personal information like relationship stuff off Facebook entirely — I don’t even interact publicly with romantic interests.
But Facebook does seem to know who I date and it’s clear from content arrangement that these relationships are indeed used to precipitate maximum interaction or interest — viewable it would seem only by me, but still an indicator that Facebook is well aware of things we don’t explicitly tell it. Unsettlingly so.
So, to Matt. BuzzFeed received a panicked email from a Facebook user who had decided to come out to a single, sole friend in a phone call — and woke up to targeted ads for a “coming out coach” on Facebook, a frighteningly targeted bit of advertising that might put any user on high panic alert.
BuzzFeed provides the following background of Matt’s Facebook activity:
… to Matt, it seemed like there was no other way they could know. Matt didn’t like any pages associated with LGBTQ issues — just a Republican politician and a local bar, he says — and definitely wasn’t talking about his sexual orientation either in plain view (his wall or others) or in semi-privacy (personal messages or chat). So he took a look back through his activity log in search of “clues” — anything that might’ve let Facebook know this ad was personally relevant.
However, he did use Facebook to comment on a link about the recent reversal of Sen. Rob Portman on gay marriage — a relatively common topical matter last week and one that didn’t seem to result in a spate of accidental outings. Probably not the precipitate, but the single publicly viewable thing Matt did that was related to LGBT matters.
So how can Facebook’s gay users not get outed? Therein lies the rub. Facebook jealously guards its algorithms and how they work — a proprietary trade secret on which the social network’s success hinges.
In essence, unless Facebook can build a secret dossier on you based not only on who you claim to be but who you actually are — including who you’re shagging, where you really spend your time and which things you most frequently search for or discuss — it can’t make money. Facebook will go broke advertising to the truthful ideal selves we purport to be on the site, and instead is forced to market to our insecurities, fears and most closely protected secrets.
So another story about Facebook outing gay users is less a cautionary tale and more a reminder — Facebook knows. Sure, you can remain safer by not posting or being tagged in pictures of a bar dancing binge, but that doesn’t mean you won’t wake up to targeted Facebook ads asking if you worry you drink too much or offers for local Zumba classes.