An investigation has exposed an alarming loophole on Facebook that gives advertisers the opportunity to do something very disturbing.
Advertisers looking to take advantage of young people on Facebook with harmful content such as extreme weight loss can reach 1000 teenagers for less than it costs to fill up a car.
That is one of the alarming takeaways from a report that has laid bare how easy it is to target people aged between 13 and 17 with ads relating to extreme weight loss, gambling and dating wealthy men.
Reset Australia – a lobby group monitoring digital threats to democracy – recently released a report titled Profiling Children for Advertising: Facebook’s Monetisation of Young People’s Personal Data.
It has also released a 47-second video showing how easy it was to target the harmful ads toward young people.
“This sort of profiling is part of Facebook’s day-to-day business model,” the report read.
“Reaching a thousand young people profiled as interested in alcohol will cost advertisers around $3.03, $38.46 for those interested in extreme weight loss, or $127.88 to those profiled as interested in smoking.”
The organisation developed a ‘dubious ads’ campaign and was able to get approval for ads that “reinforced body image ideals, set to be delivered to those profiled as 13-17 years old and interested in extreme weight loss”.
The report said one ad encouraged young girls to connect and chat with wealthy men.
It was set to be delivered to those profiled as female, 13-17 years old, single and interested in online dating services.
Another ad which reached the approval stage encouraged people to “win prizes in mobile-game-style gambling,” which was set to be delivered to those profiled as 13-17 and interested in gambling.
Reset Australia executive director Chris Cooper said it was wrong Facebook knew young people were interested in weight loss at all, let alone advertising for it.
“Extreme weight loss was the most concerning (outcome of the report),” Mr Cooper told NCA NewsWire.
“It is obviously inappropriate to advertise to young people about alcohol, tobacco and gambling but at least the ads are more controlled and restricted.
“However, with weight loss there is very little control around it. The fact Facebook knows young people are interested in extreme weight loss is concerning, and then selling access to the relevant profiles. It floored us to be honest.”
Reset Australia got the ads approved but did not run them.
Mr Cooper also said the aim of the report was not the ads or advertising standards, rather the surveillance of young people.
“The really important thing here is we should be concerned not just about content of these ads but more the surveillance and tracking of teens,” he said.
In a statement provided to NCA NewsWire, a Facebook spokesman said ads were reviewed by software and staff.
“Keeping young people safe across Facebook and Instagram is vital,” a spokesman said.
“We have significant measures in place to review all ads before and after they run, including automated systems and human reviewers.
“Anyone advertising on our platforms must comply with our policies along with all local laws and codes, such as those restricting the advertising of alcohol to minors in Australia.
“Facebook does not sell your information. Instead, advertisers and other partners pay Facebook to show personalised advertisements to people on the Facebook company apps and technologies.”
Reset Australia is urging the federal government to follow the UK and Ireland in moving to prevent the trade of teenager‘s data.
“The UK has passed the Age Appropriate Design Code which gives young people the maximum level of privacy protections and Ireland has passed a very similar code,” Mr Cooper said.
The Australian government is conducting a privacy review which is examining traditional media as well data use by tech companies.