Normally I’m not a crazy conspiracy theorist, y’all.
But I feel like I’m losing my damn mind. Lock me up, people. Put me in the crazy bin. It might even be nice in there with all the other folks claiming we didn’t land on the moon.
I think Instagram is listening to me.
Why? I mean, I have a solid body of evidence. The most egregious example is that my mom texted me a photo of a particular dress from Banana Republic, then LATER THAT DAY, I was shown an Instagram ad of the exact dress she sent. How does it know?! Why was it reading my texts??
I later discovered that Instagram even requires you to give it constant access to your microphone in order to post a “story,” so I started turning the mic off whenever I was finished posting a new “story.” But that still didn’t explain the creepy ad - I never talked about it out loud, so why was I seeing it?
Even worse - I talked about my sister-in-law being a great hand letterer and that she should go into calligraphy part time. Later that day:
Despite the creep-factor, I moved on from these particular incidents and hadn’t thought much about the Big Brother that is Instagram until my most recent run-in with the Digital Creeps:
Last week, I was visiting my husband’s family in South Alabama. We were gearing up to celebrate my sister-in-law’s 4th of July-themed baby shower, so my mother-in-law (Kim), sister-in-law (Kaitlyn) and I went shopping. Mac was with me, too.
We made a stop at Target, then went to Wal Mart. In the middle of our trip, Mac started to get a little fussy, so I decided I’d wait for the other two back in the car. On my way out of the store, I was looking for a bottled water so that I could mix it with Mac’s dry formula and give him a bottle in the car. It was really hard to find a single bottle of water (as opposed to a case or a 6-pack of bottled water) because of where I was in the store: back in the drink section, not at the front in cash wrap.
The only single-serving water available was a brand called Life Wtr, which I grabbed quickly, along with a birthday card for Jordan’s grandmother, checked out, and left the store.
Less than 12 hours later, I was scrolling through Instagram and saw an ad for Life Wtr.
This was striking to me because prior to being in WalMart that afternoon, I’d never even heard of this product. I know, you’re probably thinking, “You’ve heard of it, you just didn’t remember.” We’ll get to that theory in a second.
What was even more strange about this was that I was being targeted for this ad less than 12 hours after I’d bought the product for first time. Normally, there are a few explanations for how this can happen - someone near you Googles the product and you get an ad; location services are turned on and so Instagram knows that you’re in a WalMart and pushes WalMart’s preferred content; you pay with a loyalty or rewards card and your purchases are logged.
But none of this was the case for me.
- My location services are always turned off
- I was alone and no one could’ve Googled the product
- I don’t have a loyalty or rewards card for WalMart
- I didn’t text or talk about, or Google the product myself
So how the hell did I get this ad? This felt different to me - it wasn’t something I’d texted about, it was something I BOUGHT. Which made me feel like my privacy was being infringed upon even more - why were my individual purchases being sold to third parties??
I went on a fact-finding mission that started with Tweeting (rather aggressively, I’m not gonna lie) at Chase Visa, Instagram, and WalMart asking WTF was up.
After Chase assured me via an e-mail later that day that they weren’t selling my information, I put up an Instagram story explaining what had happened. And people started sending theories. I’m talkin’ I had around 40 DM’s in addition to texts and e-mails from people explaining how this might have happened, or telling stories that something similar had happened to the author of the response. More than any other story I’ve ever posted, a flood of response began, and overarchingly the theory was that the microphones our iPhones are turned on, allowing FB and Instagram to secretly spy. This proved to me that we’re all asking the same question:
Is Instagram listening to us?
Since the Life Wtr incident, I’ve been poring over articles and listening to podcasts about this very subject. Some articles claim that we’re all deluded; that we’re so obsessed with ourselves that we’re convinced we’re being listened to or targeted when really, it’s a demographic thing and everyone our age is being targeted by similar ads. Excuse, but I call bullshit. There is absolutely something to the fact that we can talk/text/tweet/think about something, then it’s magically in our ads hours (or sometimes even minutes) later.
Once I listened to a podcast called Reply All’s amazing episode about this (highly recommended for explanations on all this and more), I felt like I actually got some answers.
Here’s what I uncovered:
Facebook Pixel. This is something that you probably already know, even if you aren’t able to articulate it. Facebook wants to know what you’re doing when you aren’t on its site, so it has partnered with millions of websites through a system called Facebook Pixel. Pixels follows you around the Internet to different sites and reports back to Facebook what you did. Reply All described it as “an online surveillance system.” That’s why if you may have been shopping for a particular item, then seen an ad pop up on Facebook or Instagram for that exact product minutes later. Other retailers adapted this software, which explains why sometimes you shop for an item, choose not to buy it, and then receive an e-mail about a sale on patio furniture with the EXACT SET OF FURNITURE you were looking at as the very top photo in the e-mail. Not that that’s happened to me recently...
Our friends’ interests curate our ad content. This particular revelation explains why the Banana Republic ad came up in my Instagram feed after my mom texted me about it. Based on the amount you interact with a certain person on social media, Instagram/Facebook assumes that it’s likely you share interests. When one person searches for an item, Pixel remembers that and shows them an ad for it on their Facebook page. If you interact with them enough, chances are, you’re ALSO going to see an ad for it on your Facebook page. The following DM from a buddy of mine is a great example of that happening - likely, Patrick's dad Googling a fire pit meant that Patrick got ads for it, which in turn meant that Jackson got ads for it because Jackson and Patrick interact on social media frequently:
They may not be listening to us, but they’re definitely watching. In what may be my creepiest discovery, I read a piece on Gizmodo about researchers who spent a year testing whether their microphones were being accessed by various apps. While their findings didn’t support that the mics were being used, they did discover that their app usage was being watched by a service called AppSee, which literally records what you do within an app and sends that information out to third parties. How long you hover over something, whether you “like” something, etc. Someone also sent me a piece from the New York Times about how our TV’s could also be tracking us and using what shows we watch to control what ads we’re getting on our other electronic devices.
Facebook buys our personal histories. They know our credit history, credit scores, the square footage of our houses, our income; they learn about what stores we have loyalty cards for and even what products we use those loyalty cards to buy. Some extra invasive examples include how often we buy certain medications, when we've stopped buying birth control, etc. Facebook has broken us all into ultra-specific categories (Reply All even mentioned one called "People Who Pretend to Text In Awkward Situations) in order to provide us with a super-curated experience that keeps us coming back for more. I looked into the categories Facebook has broken me into and it was both odd and revealing, particularly the fact that my affinity group is African Americans (which I love, I'm not gonna lie). Of course, this isn't a complete picture - the 'Book has over 52,000 of these categories. This is just what they've chosen to reveal to us:
And to keep us from going completely nuts, keep in mind:
Baader-Meinhof Phenomenon. I remember when I bought my Subaru, there seemed to suddenly be thousands of Subarus in Asheville. (Well...to be fair to me, there actually are thousands of Subarus in Asheville. It’s the basic bitch car of Asheville. I’m just gonna own it.) But I began noticing them way more than I had before. The number of cars didn’t change; my awareness of the cars did. And that’s an example of this phenomenon, which proposes that the world around us isn’t what’s changing - our awareness of that world is, and we mistakenly believe the circumstances around us have changed instead. That explains some things, certainly, but it is also 100% true that we’re being followed around the Internet.
Conclusions and things we can do to protect ourselves:
Turn off your mic.
The creepiest discovery I made months back was learning that Facebook and Instagram requires you to toggle your microphone access “on” or “off,” as opposed to every other app that gives users the option to have their mics accessed “only when in use.” Meaning that even when Instagram and Facebook (Insta’s parent company) aren’t being used, they can still access your mic. While it is certainly very unlikely that anyone is spying on us via our mics, given the sheer amount of manpower that would take, it’s still a huge invasion of privacy and a really creepy feature. It’s a pain in the neck to do if you’re someone who regularly uses Instagram Stories, because you have to turn the mic back on each time you want to post, but I think it’s worth it. Also, if you have the Facebook app on your phone...I mean, just delete it. Nothing good can come from that.
Make payments and deal with sensitive information from a laptop or desktop.
You’re likely not using an app version of a website on these devices, which makes you less prone to being spied on by services like AppSee, which could, in theory, access your banking/credit card info and passwords (since it records things in real time before numbers and characters turn into little black asterisks).
Use the Internet as though your history will eventually be published for everyone you know to see.
It BLOWS MY MIND that people are still using the Internet for things they’d be embarrassed for other people to know about. Like, hi, dumb dumbs, we live in 2018. Are you on PornHub like 12 hours a day? Mmmmk well that’s going to eventually come out in a weird and embarrassing fashion. Like, your eulogy will probably just be a robot projecting a scroll of everything you ever searched. No one is safe. If you have naked photos in your iCloud, they’re not safe. If you have a weird foot fetish, we’re gonna know about it. There’s a story on the Reply All episode I mentioned earlier about a man who started seeing ads for White Nationalist groups on his Facebook feed because his brother-in-law was secretly attending White Supremacist meetings. No one knew about these meetings except - you guessed it - Facebook. But now everyone knows.
Cover your cameras.
This step definitely makes you look like the Unabomber, but I have a small piece of tape covering the camera on my iPad and laptop. I know it’s highly unlikely that those cameras are being accessed without my permission, but it’s not that unusual for me to be watching a show while getting ready and I’m not prepared for the world to be exposed to my naked body. Especially after a baby. Ya dig?
Get informed about what the Internet knows about you already.
There are a million articles that detail ways to do this, but this one is great.
In conclusion: you are not crazy, I am not crazy, and the Internet can be a scary place. Big Brother is kind of an inevitability at this point, though there are certainly things that are more benign (getting an ad for a Banana Republic dress) than others (having your app usage monitored and sold). While there are a lot of good explanations for a lot of instances of ad-creepiness, sometimes nothing makes sense (like the Life Wtr situation, which is still unsolved). And that should freak you out.
One thing is clear: almost nothing is a coincidence in the world of online marketing. And, as a friend of mine who works for a major tech company put it to me last week, “When the app is free, you’re the product."