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This woman’s open letter highlights everything wrong with algorithms
Source: Tech Desk

Gillian Brockell’s post on how Facebook, Instagram, Twitter insistence on showing advertisements around baby products, despite her announcement of a stillbirth, shows the problem of algorithms on social media networks. (Image source: Reuters)

On social media platforms, the algorithm is king. Your past preferences, announcements, clicks, search history, all decide what advertisements you are shown on Instagram, Facebook and Twitter.    But as Gillian Brockell wrote on Twitter and in the Washington Post, algorithms can be especially cruel and insensitive in times of loss, when companies insist on showing advertisements, which have been deemed ‘relevant,’ though the person might be grieving.

Brockell, who works at the Washington Post, wrote about her recent experience when she had a stillbirth but continued to be flooded with advertisements about baby products like strollers and nursing bras on Facebook. The reason: she had announced her pregnancy on both Facebook and Instagram, and the networks just assumed that everything was fine.

This happened even though she had put out an announcement post about the stillbirth, talking of her heartbreak over the loss of her child. Further, the advertisements about baby products were marked as not relevant by Gillian.

As she notes in her post, she even clicked on the ‘I don’t want to see this ad’ option, with the “cruel-but-true ‘It’s not relevant to me,'” option, but that did not have an impact in removing these from her News Feed.

Her post highlights one of the major problems of social media networks and their algorithms: the assumption that everything and everyone is happy. Because she had announced her pregnancy on these social networks, they assumed she had given birth and it had all worked out.

Worse still, one tech company Experian sending her a spam email asking her to finish registering for her baby to track his credit though she had never even started this option.

Her post did get a response from Facebook’s Rob Goldman, who is the Vice-President of Ads at the social network, but there’s no been other official statement as such.

Goldman wrote, “I am so sorry for your loss and your painful experience with our products. We have a setting available that can block ads about some topics people may find painful – including parenting. It still needs improvement, but please know that we’re working on it & welcome your feedback.”

But one look at Brockell’s timeline and you can see that this is not a problem that tech companies have even acknowledged, let alone attempted to solve. Another woman’s reply to Brockell’s story notes that Facebook had created a 2018 end of year video for her as though everything is happy, even though she lost her son this year.

Bobby Choquette in her reply to Brockell’s tweet wrote, “But this was NOT a very nice year for me. My son died unexpectedly in July. It still hurts to see him accepting his HS diploma in May. Some “commencement”, sigh.”

Further, Facebook still has not understood about balance when it comes to showing advertising, especially those who might be grieving.

Brockell’s latest tweet showed that the social network is now showing her ads about adopting, even though she has not googled for this or plans to do it and is still grieving. This happened even though she specifically turned off ads around parenting on the social network.

Her latest tweet reads, “And here’s a look at how effective it is when you finally do find the corner of Facebook where you can turn off parenting ads. Just came up in my feed. (And no, I have not been googling about adoption. I am miles away from anything but grieving. cc @robjective.)” Facebook’s VP of ads has not yet replied to this particular tweet.

Brockell’s is certainly not the first story of algorithms showing advertisements, which are ill-timed and insensitive.

In October 2018, Telegraph had reported the story of a woman named Anna England-Kerr, who was shown ads of IVF treatments, newborn products after suffering a still-birth and despite changing the settings on her Facebook account.

At the time, Facebook had blamed a bug in its Hide Topics API and apologised for the same. In her blog post and open letter to Facebook, England-Kerr had written, “As an excited, expectant mother I had clicked on lots of ads for baby related things over the past months; so my telling you that I really didn’t want to see them any more made no difference.”

“Ad blockers were ineffective and no matter how many times I gave feedback that the baby ads were ‘not relevant to me’ or I clicked on ANY ad for ANYTHING else regardless of whether I was interested or not, it did little to change what I was advertised,” she had said in her blog.

She further wrote, “Your ads were unintentionally taunting me with reminders of what I’d lost… All the things I would never get to do for her. All these things I would never buy.”

At the time, Facebook said it had fixed the problem in the bug. But as Brockell’s post clearly shows, the algorithm remains flawed.


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