Ethics and Awareness in Facebook Ad Retargeting [Report] [Reflection]

Facebook’s position as a tech or media company as well as it’s business practices have been a hot topic in the media lately which [admittedly] has worked to my advantage in my recent research. The topic of ethics and awareness of ad retargeting is something that has stimulated many experts and academics in digital media and marketing as Facebook’s algorithms continue to raise questions about the content we are showed, how it affects our lives and the level of personal data that is extracted from us, stored and traded with advertisers. The questions were simple, are people aware of what is this form of advertising is? how it works and whether they believe it to be ethical or an invasion of our privacy?

Curiosity was the key research research value that started me on my research journey. Curiosity from learning about a new form of advertising in my job, how it made me feel and the curiosity of what others like myself might think about it. This of course was the way in which companies like Facebook use and sell our data to advertisers and the ethics behind the ways that their ads target us. According to Zora Neale Hurston, “Research is formalised curiosity. It is poking and prying with a purpose.” This was particularly true with my own experiences. Since learning about some of the ways advertising worked in the digital space and continuing my learning with some publications in the industry, I managed to build my knowledge but also build my curiosity. This project became the research project soon became the perfect place to exercise my ‘formalised curiosity’.

I knew however that this topic was quite close to home for communication and media students and in my plan to use primary research using students in my cohort I would need to exercise critical judgement of my findings. It’s likely if you explain the potential ethical issues surrounding data and ad retargeting to your mum or dad they my seem quite shocked and even horrified but the average student of media will likely be more aware and as a student wanting to work in the industry they will likely be more accepting of questionable ethical practices. I would also need to take into account that if there was little or no awareness of Facebook ad retargeting, would asking a question of ethics to a misinformed audience produce accurate results or would they be more inclined to respond based on the room of people. For this risk I made sure to provide a simple definition of how pixel based retargeting works to ask after I had asked questions on awareness.

Not only would my primary research come into question, it has become widely know that the state of the internet is somewhat suffering a crisis of reliability of sources with fake news being the hottest topic. Luckily for my project, secondary research would be more or less a guide for conducting my primary research and also as means for cross checking my findings with existing research. One of my sources in question for example is a draft paper which was given permission to be used in my study however the findings may not be completely accurate until the final version is published.

In the planning of my primary research survey and focus group questions It was difficult ask questions that would not present my own bias or push be leading and push forward my hypothesis. For this stage I executed the use of good survey questions that would present my topic clearly and simply without and opportunity. For this stage of my research particularly it was important to exercise the respect of my respondents time and ability to answer the questions presented to them as well as give respect to the parties which my project directly or indirectly involved. In this scenario I had to make sure I was not pushing smearing Facebook as brand as the became the talking point of ethical practice in ad retargeting.

There were some aspects of this project that I would change if I was to repeat it in the future. Overall I was very happy with insights and discussion from my focus group and I would not underrate the effectiveness of such a form of primary research in having such an important discussion as ethics. I was also fortunate to have an audience that was able to think rationally about the for and against. My survey on the other hand needed to be assessed based on existing research as 9 responses was not enough in my opinion to elicit a reliable reflection of the audience.

If you’re interested in reading the full report you can do so here.


I would like to thank all the communication students that were willing to take the time to complete my survey, the students that participated in the focus group and my teacher, Renee Middlemost who supported and encouraged my project the whole way through.

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