2 May 2017

Leaked memo shows FB researching vulnerable Kiwi teens

From Nine To Noon, 9:24 am on 2 May 2017

New Zealand and Australian teens as young as 14 are part of Facebook research around targeting advertising towards people feeling stressed, worthless or insecure, according to a memo released to an Australian newspaper.

The Australian reported the document was prepared by two of Facebook's top Australian executives.

Since the story was published Facebook has issued an apology and launched an investigation into the research, which it says does not appear to have followed its policy for use of sensitive data.

The memo reportedly states that Facebook can detect in real time when young people are feeling stressed, defeated, overwhelmed, anxious, nervous, stupid, silly, useless and a failure.

The government wants to let children enrol in online-only schools instead of going to regular schools.

Photo: 123RF

The journalist who broke the story, Darren Davidson, told Nine to Noon he had heard rumours for some time about Facebook using dodgy advertising techniques but any information around it was a closely guarded secret.

"I'd come pretty close on a number of occasions to obtaining some documents and on all of those occasions the sources that I had basically lost their nerve."

He recently got hold of the leaked memo and said he was shocked about what was in it.

"I'm surprised they write these things down, it's really astonishing that they talk about young children in this way.

"By knowing when a group of people feel a certain mood, they might therefore have a higher intent to purchase or be more susceptible to or be more vulnerable to, I guess the suggestion is, advertising."

While the document says Facebook falls short of naming individuals, it can provide granular details.

"They know how many friends you have, your relationship status, where you live, how you access the platform via your phone or desktop, where you do it and what time you do it, and there's more detail as well on what they know about you.

"If you know when someone's vulnerable, rather than try to sell them ads, shouldn't you try and help them some way?"

Facebook says it has 6.4 million users in Australia and New Zealand aged from 14 to 24.

New Zealand young people were mentioned as part of the database, however it was not clear if they were part of the entire research process.

The memo was part of a presentation for a top-four bank in Australia.

"It talks about what they can do for the bank ... it's 24 pages long and it talks about some of their products at the top of the presentation and how they can, you know, continue working together."

Davidson said he did not believe a suggestion from Facebook that the document was merely a mistake, as though advertising was a rogue operation in their company.

"It's not like they have people in other functions, all they really do is sell ads, they don't produce any other content, they take content from newspapers, magazines, TV networks, they get it for free, they aggregate it, and then they aggressively sell ads against those eyeballs.

"They know very well what they're doing."

Internet NZ chief executive Jordan Carter told Nine to Noon the document raised wider questions about Facebook's social responsibilities, rather than just the company's own financial interest.

"I don't think that children, young people, should be targeted on that basis."

He said a lot of advertisers would want to get their hands on the information, as emotional states are key to manipulation in advertising.

"This might be really high octane stuff if it was made available."

He said it was astonishing how much could be made of the information that people give away.

"The question for us as society is ... How do we want these platforms to be able to use information about young and vulnerable people, or indeed about any of us?

"That's a debate that we had in patches through things like the Harmful Digital Communications Act, but as we all put more and more information online, and as the tools of big data and artificial intelligence develop to be able to make more meaning from it, this is a debate that isn't going to be going away."

Advertising Standards Authority chief executive Hilary Souter said most of New Zealand's advertising codes focused on content, particularly what could and could not be said in advertising, but there were codes around a due sense of responsibility and vulnerable consumers.

"There is a high expectation that advertisers, advertising agencies and the media platforms will be more careful in those categories and they include children and young people, therapeutic products and services, alcohol, gambling and financial advertising."

She said there were clear requirements in the code about not targeting young people in relation to weight loss.

"We would expect the advertiser to be able to explain what approach they took, in relation to how that ad was served."