By Robert Hackett
March 31, 2018

Happy holidays, Cyber Saturday readers.

The fallout from Facebook’s ongoing data controversy spurred me to find out what that clumsy advertising panopticon presumes to know about me. While reviewing—and tightening up—elements of my Facebook profile this week, I made a few surprising discoveries.

The first finding caused my brow to furrow. On the “ad preferences” page purporting to reveal my food and drink-related interests, Facebook displayed a photo of a firearm. Apparently, my gustatory inclinations include “shotgun”—at least that’s what the tech giant’s oh-so sophisticated ad targeting algorithms say. The site doesn’t seem to care that guns are, generally, inedible.

One of these things is not like the others. (Screenshot of a selection of my supposed food-related "interests" on Facebook.)

As I excavated the idiosyncratic items that influence my online ad experience, more oddities piled up. I was puzzled to encounter the comedy Ted 2 among my “news and entertainment” interests, a film I have never seen. Did Facebook get its wires crossed while processing that I used to work at TED, or did I, for whatever reason, once “like” something related to the movie? Similarly, Facebook seemed to believe I hold cheddar cheese in high regard. It’s a fine food product, and maybe Facebook has reason to believe I think so. But I have a hunch that Facebook’s bumbling algorithms simply misinterpreted recent status updates about appearances I’ve made on Cheddar, a business news show.

To be fair, it’s possible that Facebook’s ad targeting is operating on a level that runs deeper than my ability to comprehend it. Maybe my supposed interests—which include, according to Facebook, the slider baseball pitch, electric currents, butterflies, and the Nepali language—don’t matter much individually. Perhaps they merely indicate, in aggregate, some idea about me that marketers hold dear? Or maybe Facebook’s personalization engine is simply trying too hard to read meaning into nonsense, sorting people categories that are laughably off the mark.

Probably both. After I posted my shotgun finding on Twitter, a colleague noted that Facebook might be referring to the act of “shotgunning,” a crude way to quickly down a beverage, typically beer. This would seem to explain the food-and-drink association, but it raises other questions. Foremost among them: is Facebook’s understanding so crude here that it would conflate a method of bibulation with a weapon? When I click to see examples of ads that use this as a factor in their targeting, I’m shown firearm paraphernalia, like “pre-fitted gun cases.”

To be honest, I don’t know whether to be creeped out by the advertising behemoth’s “insights,” or perplexed by its seeming maladroitness.

A quick update before you go: I invite you to view Fortune’s first episode of Balancing The Ledger, a new show starring your favorite fin-tech reporters. Appropriately, the first installment covers Facebook’s penchant for data mining, and whether projects based on blockchain technology could someday pose an alternative for consumers. I hope you enjoy.

Have a great weekend.

Robert Hackett


Welcome to the Cyber Saturday edition of Data Sheet, Fortune’s daily tech newsletter. Fortune reporter Robert Hackett here. You may reach Robert Hackett via Twitter, Cryptocat, Jabber (see OTR fingerprint on my, PGP encrypted email (see public key on my, Wickr, Signal, or however you (securely) prefer. Feedback welcome.


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