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Answer Man: Your posts determine which ads Facebook sends

April 13, 2018

OK, Answer Man, I’m sure that you’re young enough to understand how this Facebook stuff works. I followed the coverage this week of Mark Zuckerberg testifying before Congress, but I’m still not sure how Facebook makes its money. — Fred

You got my attention by calling me young. Flattery gets you everywhere with the Answer Man.

You’re not alone if you don’t understand how Facebook works. By the questions asked by the members of Congress during the last two days, several of them don’t either.

Facebook makes its money by advertising. In my masterpiece that ran the day after the Super Bowl, I explained that advertising is effective across most mediums, especially outlets like the Post Bulletin. I’ll provide links why you should trust print ads more than digital ones.

What Facebook does is take the data you provide, where you live and how old you are, to customize ads to a target audience. Ever go on vacation and post photos from your trip? Tourism ads from that area will arrive shortly afterward in your Facebook feed.

While Facebook doesn’t sell your data directly, it charges an advertiser more money for a more specific audience. Advertisers choose the types of users they want to reach. Facebook, using the data they’ve gathered about you, can make the match internally to select who will be shown the ads.

“With our powerful audience selection tools, you can target the people who are right for your business,” Facebook says on its page explaining its advertising reach.

The more active you are on Facebook, the more data you’re letting it collect. How many times do you like or share something? (Undoubtedly, this column will be one.) Remember that survey that asked you questions to determine which Star Trek character you are? (I’m Stonn, the Vulcan paramour who broke up Spock’s engagement.) All of that information, no matter how innocuous, contributes to the profile Facebook keeps on you.

That data isn’t supposed to leave Facebook. However, what prompted Congress to bring Facebook’s CEO to Washington is the disclosure that Cambridge Analytica, a consulting firm with ties to Donald Trump, managed to get data on at least 50 million Facebook users through an app that was purportedly a research tool.

With these apps, Facebook isn’t selling data — it’s giving data to apps for free. And that’s a security breach that’s sullied Facebook’s reputation.

Zuckerberg said Wednesday that some form of regulation of social media is inevitable in the aftermath of the Cambridge Analytica scandal. But considering how polarized Congress is, and how little our senators and representatives understand social media, I don’t think it will happen anytime soon.