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Targeted ads: 'Everything we read online is a reflection of what we want to hear'

When we mindlessly scroll through Facebook we are willing and accepting recipients of “fake news”, writes Deirdre Robertson.

Deirdre Robertson Researcher, Behavioural Science

HOW OFTEN DO you react to an advertisement on your social media profile that seems completely out of place? A product that you’ve no interest in or – as happened to me last week – a political message that I fundamentally disagreed with. The answer is probably not very often.

We have become so blasé about social media platforms using our personal data and search habits to provide us with targeted content that it has become unusual to see something you don’t agree with.

It is this that makes it blissfully easy for political campaigns to steer the minds of swathes of voters. Sue Halpern, writing in The New York Review of Books last month, explores how the Trump campaign benefitted from fake news and targeted Facebook content that catered to voters’ personal fears and ideologies. In fact, the campaign was so confident based on reading Facebook that they sent Trump on last minute trips to Michigan, Wisconsin and Pennsylvania, states that others would have strongly predicted were unsympathetic to him.

Why is targeted content so powerful?

To illustrate, see how quickly you can answer these questions:

  • A bat and ball cost €1.10 in total. The bat costs €1.00 more than the ball. How much does the ball cost?
  • If it takes 5 machines 5 minutes to make 5 widgets, how long would it take 100 machines to make 100 widgets?
  • In a lake, there is a patch of lily pads. Every day the patch doubles in size. If it takes 48 days for the patch to cover the entire lake, how long would it take for the patch to cover half of the lake?

If you gave an instant response there is a good chance you gave these answers: 10 cents, 100 minutes, 24 days. If you thought about the questions for a bit longer, maybe you reached the correct answers: 5 cents, 5 minutes, 47 days.

The way we think can be divided into two broad categories called System 1 and System 2.
System 1 is made up of our gut responses, instincts and immediate desires. System 2 is the slower, more controlled method that involves critically analysing information.

If you got the answers wrong it’s not a reflection on you. A study of over 3,000 people of different ages, genders and backgrounds found that 83% of them made at least one mistake. Why?

We are mentally lazy

Because it is really hard to resist a gut response that “seems true”. Humans are mentally lazy. It takes a lot of attention and willpower to use System 2, processes that are already highly in demand in our busy lives. System 1 is based on what are called “cognitive biases”, essentially rules of thumb that we use to get answers that are intuitively right.

One cognitive bias we all have is called confirmation bias. This is the tendency to lend more credence to anything that supports our own view. Evidence that conflicts with our beliefs is jarring so we (unwittingly or not) tend to ignore it and place a greater weight on something that aligns with our beliefs, often regardless of the source. This is where the explosion of targeted advertising becomes problematic.

When we mindlessly scroll through Facebook we are not deeply processing what we read. We are often bored with half of our attention on something else. Given the ease with which System 1 will accept answers that “seem right”, targeted ads are more likely to be accepted uncritically. Given our tendency towards confirmation bias we are less likely to question the source if it tells us something we want to hear. We become willing and accepting recipients of “fake news”.

What can we do to stop this?

At some stage in school you probably learned the scientific method. This list of remote four-syllable words (observation, hypothesis, analysis, modification) essentially means being curious, gathering data that rigorously tests an idea and then updating your belief on the basis of the results, regardless of whether they support your theory or not.
The scientific method is not something that should be buried in a school textbook. It is a set of guidelines we can all use in our daily lives.

The problem with targeted advertising is that it encases us in a bubble that can’t be popped by contradictory evidence because we are never exposed to it. Everything we read becomes a reflection of what we want to hear and think we already know.

While targeted content may mean you get to see more cute dog videos and I get more advertisements for chocolate, it also has a more sinister consequence where we are no longer challenged, no longer exposed to novelty and no longer have to update our beliefs when contradictory evidence proves them wrong.

Targeted advertising isn’t going away but we will have to make more of an effort to adopt the scientific method and to purposely seek out evidence that contradicts us. It may jar when our pet theories are tested but it may also be the only way we can safely steer ourselves out of this postmodern “fake news” era.

Deirdre Robertson is a researcher on the Behavioural Science team at the Economic and Social Research Institute investigating how policy can help people to overcome cognitive biases in consumer and health decision-making. She was the Irish winner of international science communication competition FameLab.

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About the author:

Deirdre Robertson  / Researcher, Behavioural Science

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