Facebook told me you’re gay!

April 19, 2012


Hi all,

Facebook or other social media channels contribute a lot of benefits to our lives – some of them I discussed in my previous posts. Nevertheless, we have to keep in mind that we are responsible for things we do or say on these channels. This seems quite plausible because social media are public conversations. Whereas, the fact that Facebook tracks many things we do not intend sharing with others, is questionable. The controversy about the manner in which companies like Facebook or Google are handling with sensitive data is as old as these channels themselves. Data protectionists criticize that Facebook monitors every step we do and draws its conclusions by combining the data we are providing. In this post I want to refer to that criticism but change the focus from a general perspective to the influences it can have on the LGBT community. Do we have to fear that information concerning our LGBT identity getting public without us knowing?

The first case I want to present concerns the possible threats of private communication via social networks. Over the time a lot of applications and tools on Facebook were created (not only by Facebook itself) which connect social data from different users. Most of them were fun to use and had some kind of benefit. However I want to give you one example how data were used in an equivocal way: The so called “Gaydar”-project was released some time ago. This tool can be used to scan profiles with the aim to identify the users' sexual orientation by the number of his openly gay friends linked to him. It works by recognizing and evaluating statistical relationships. In many cases the program reveals the sexual orientation correctly but of course it has a lot of methodological problems because it only refers to statistical data and there is only a probability for the results. Nonetheless, it can have negative consequences for people which are gay especially for those who are not living openly gay. In fact rumors about homosexuality has been used often used as well online as offline but a circulating rumor can have consequences for the individual whether it is right or not.

Second example is coming from a marketing perspective: Communication strategists try to benefit from the information Google and Facebook provides them with. You might be aware of a special ad displayed on your browser that referred exactly to your actual search behavior. But have you ever been aware that you could have been targeted by special gay ads? A few years ago Microsoft and Germany’s Max Planck Institute (German research institutes) found out in a study that Facebook targets gay people with special ads based on their sexual orientation. They found it out by creating some fake accounts, some of them were gay and others were straight. As a result it turned out that the ads which were displayed on gay men's profiles significantly differed from those ads that appeared on others profiles. Some of the ads were obviously targeting gay people such as an ad of a gay bar. On the other hand there were ads displayed on gay men's profiles which were not apparently addressing gay people such as one for a nursing degree at a medical college in Florida. They seemed to be regular ads which thematically could have been shown to every Facebook member, but they were exclusively displayed on gay profiles (66 of them didn't even contain the word “gay”). This is controversial, because by clicking on these ads the user reveals his sexual orientation as well as his Facebook-ID (plus cookie, IP address, or e-mail address if the users signs up on the advertiser’s site) to the advertiser without knowing it. Additionally, there is no clear explanation for what aim they are collecting this data. Did the advertisers want to build up a gay database or why is Facebook providing this information to them? This question comes up regarding the fact that ads which were displayed on lesbians’ profiles did not substantially differ from straight women's.

These two examples show how easily information about your LGBT identity can leak to third parties over Facebook or other platforms. Applications, such as “Gaydar”, are in my opinion just the childish implementation of the old playground game “Who might be gay” to the internet. Nevertheless, they could be used for online mobbing or could have other negative consequences for the users that are “outed” by this app. What concerns me even more is that advertisers are getting information about sexual orientation in secret. It would be no big deal if Facebook or its advertisers informed the users openly that they are tracking their data to build up customers profiles. Actually it is a fact both sides can benefit from: Those customers who accept this conditions could get fitting niche advertisement which refers to their interests which they normally would not got. Marketing strategists on the other hand would get better feedback on who is belonging to their target group and what their target group is interested in. Of course companies do have an interest to minimize their advertising wastage and get better information about the target group but they should do it transparently. Transparency could also be a convenience for companies if they would explain the advantages to their target group as well as the aim why they are collecting this data they'll get a better reputation if someone revealed that they did it in secret. This just raises suspicions of data abuse.

Facebook as the platform that contributes this service should offer the users the possibility to disagree on transmitting their private information by informing them what happens if they proceed (and not just put it in a paragraph of their general terms and conditions). It should be clear for every click which information I am sending to a third party, maybe this would generate more awareness of how casual big companies such as Google or Facebook are treating user's information.

What do you think about this way of collecting data? Do you think the users are themselves responsible for information they have indicated in their profiles or should they be protected by authorities? I guess that In Germany there is a really big awareness and controversy for this privacy issues compared to countries e.g. the U.S. Maybe this is a German thing and you rather see the benefits from this new ways of targeting. I am looking forward to your thoughts and I would appreciate to read something from that perspective.