Targeted online advertising is inevitable: thousands of ads appear on the average person’s screen throughout the day. They are often of a nasty personal nature – the couch you just looked at will haunt you for weeks, or after posting about a particular drink, drinks like this can become ubiquitous on every site you visit. With well-trained targeted ad algorithms, your browsing history, subscriptions, comments and clicks are used relentlessly to try and sell you something.
The assumptions made by these algorithms about a person’s interests are not just an invasion of privacy, they are often sexist and racist. A recent training Northeastern University found that “some users [are] less likely than others to see certain ads based on their demographics.” The study showed that Job advertisements for occupations such as nursing and secretarial work were shown to more women, while men were shown job advertisements for taxi driver and janitor.. This prejudice extends to product offerings, with women often being offered clothes and apps for intermittent fasting, and men being offered ads for cryptocurrency trading platforms and gambling sites.
These kinds of prejudices, along with the ruthless consumerism they promote, permeate every facet of our existence, so it’s no wonder people are starting to look for ways to fight back. Kat, 23, recently shared her tactics in now viral TikTok, where she talked about “learning an algorithm like dogs”. In the video, she talked about the practice of punishing apps that showed her things she didn’t like by “closing the app” and encouraging content she approved by “taking a screenshot.”
While Kat admits that she partially uses these tactics to improve her shopping experience, she also uses them to send a message to companies whose products or practices she finds unethical. “I penalize the algorithm by reporting ads I don’t like as spam — because that’s how it is,” she said. Huck by email. “I don’t like to give money to mega-brands like Amazon or Walmart on principle, but Amazon still pays to be on my every screen nine times a day. I’m not angry at the concept of advertising, just at the lack of taste of mega-companies, especially with the onset of the pandemic. Over time, I got much more interesting and effective ads.”
Anna H, an illustrator from Belfast, has also started trying to train her algorithm during the pandemic. At first, she wanted to avoid triggered content for the sake of her mental health. Then she realized that she could start punishing companies with whose principles she disagreed, especially the exploitative fast fashion industry.
“I thought this is something I could do to support small businesses whose designs have been stolen—these companies apologize, remove the designs, and then do it again with someone else a few months later,” she explains. “By blocking their ads, I feel like I’m supporting those who work hard. Definitely more of a concern to me that these brands aren’t paying their workers properly, and I also feel solidarity with other small business owners.”
Anna B., the founder of a creative agency, has also tried to counter targeted advertising by reporting on brands she does not endorse, especially those with sexist intent. “I get so many weight loss ads, thinness fetish and other disgusting ads aimed at me all the time,” she says. “As a woman on social media, it’s awful how easy it is to feel bad about the way the ads are targeting you.”
“It’s about messing with their ad spend and making them pay for things that won’t deliver,” Anna continues. “It’s a small win as they don’t spend on the right things like taxes and decent wages.”
And there are serious risks associated with the collection of your information by these advertising algorithms, especially in the event of a data breach. The amount of information that companies have about users is huge and can contain very personal information. “We’re talking about multiple data points here, including a user’s location history, gender, health status, personal interests, political affiliation, sexual orientation, race, relationship status, browsing habits, and more,” explains Attila Tomasek, Digital Privacy Specialist. researcher in About privacy.
“Invasive targeted tracking is indeed a serious infringement on our civil liberties and fundamental privacy rights,” continues Atilla. “These ad targeting mechanisms do not put the interests of Internet users at the top of their list of priorities. They are there to generate income by collecting as much data as possible. This data is too often misused and can even be used against Internet users in malicious spear phishing campaigns, for example if the data is not properly protected and falls into the wrong hands.”
Young people are more susceptible to these dangers than they often think. 2020 survey by F5 Labs found that 81% of Gen Z wanted more online privacy, and 93% of millennials agreed. Despite having grown up in a digital age where sharing their lives online is considered the norm, they know their activities are being tracked and most of them feel uncomfortable about it.
And some of them take another step in punishing the algorithm – they deliberately try to confuse it. Gianna, 23, has been doing this for some time now to drop her recommendations, test their limits, and learn how targeted ads work. “On YouTube, I’ll play a little game where I’ll have something in mind that’s completely outside of my normal interests and see how close recommendations can get to that,” she explains. “I did it recently by typing “dolls” in the search bar, clicking on a video, then clicking on possibly two related videos, searching for “doll” again, and then searching for “doll”. Hall my ads are dedicated to reborn dolls and materials used to make realistic dolls, as well as. I will see doll eyeballs for sale on Etsy in between my usual ads.”
While tinkering with the algorithm can be fun, Gianna finds its sheer power unsettling. “I think the quiet collection bothers me,” she says. “This phenomenon, when you say something out loud and then the relevant things are forced on you, sometimes it really hurts me. When I’m talking to my roommate and maybe one of us is talking about blenders, the next thing you know is their ads on Instagram, Facebook or Snapchat.”
So, how effectively can people fight the ubiquitous algorithm – can you really teach a lesson in targeted advertising? Attila is skeptical: “The algorithm is strong enough to withstand punishments such as blocking and complaining. You may see fewer ads from specific companies, but he will still know personal information even if you deliberately try to obfuscate it.
If you really want to resist surveillance by large companies and protect your information, you need to apply a more thorough method. “These algorithms are incredibly complex and rely on more than just what you click on while browsing the web to show you targeted ads,” continues Atilla. “It’s much better to use privacy tools like ad blockers and VPNs to throw the algorithms off the trail.”
But when it comes to creating a more positive social media feed, there’s nothing wrong with blocking and reporting ads that bother you. Anna X says that her plan worked to some extent – now she sees fewer ads, which, in her opinion, should be blocked. For her, “algorithm punishment” means “I have some control over how my social media feed looks. I’m no longer bombarded by brands that don’t pay properly and use mostly women in dangerous working conditions. Screening out ads I don’t want to see makes this place a happier place.”
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