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Sad Face: Facebook Denies Advertisers Can Target Insecure, Vulnerable Children

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Facebook's advertising practices are extremely secretive, but newly leaked documents suggest the platform allows advertisers to exploit users' emotional states, and target individuals as young as 14 – although an industry expert has told Sputnik the social media giant's activities are entirely above board from a legal perspective.
​The confidential 23-page document, prepared by the company's two top executives in Australia, Andy Sinn and David Fernandez, was uncovered by local media. The paper details how the network's primary unique selling point for advertisers is that algorithms can determine and allow advertisers to pinpoint "moments when young people need a confidence boost." 

​Further expanding on this pitch, the document indicates teens often include their emotional states with their statuses, saying they feel "worthless," "insecure," "defeated," "anxious," "silly," "useless," "stupid," "overwhelmed," "stressed," and "a failure" — these moods and sentiments are rich pickings for businesses, in that they can direct target users with "comforting" messages and offers.

Particularly conducive targets include young users interested in "looking good" and maintaining "body confidence," or "working out and losing weight" — Facebook can help brands identify these users.

​Another section describes how image-recognition tools on both Facebook and Instagram (wholly owned by Facebook) can reveal to advertisers "how people visually represent moments such as meal times." And it goes into great detail about how younger Facebook users express themselves: according to Facebook Australia, during the week teens post more about "anticipatory emotions" and "building confidence," while at the weekend their posts contain more "reflective emotions" and "achievement broadcasting."

As the documents are yet to be publicly released for wider dissection, it's uncertain which, if any, brands use such advertising provisions, or whether campaigns have ever indeed been undertaken. Still, that Facebook is apparently able to predict — and possibly capitalize upon — users' emotions should not surprise. In 2016, numerous reports indicated social media platforms rigorously analyze, and can even influence, users' moods. In March, Facebook's chief artificial-intelligence specialist confirmed he was developing software that uses data to predict the future.

While Facebook does not contest the veracity of the document, the company has issued a statement disputing the premise of the reports, stating they are "misleading."

"Facebook does not offer tools to target people based on their emotional states. The analysis was intended to help marketers understand how people express themselves on Facebook. It was never used to target ads and was based on data that was anonymous and aggregated. Facebook has an established process to review the research we perform. This research did not follow that process, and we are reviewing the details to correct the oversight. We will undertake disciplinary and other processes as appropriate."

​It’s also unclear whether similar or identical youth-targeted advertising practices are in use at other international Facebook offices, although the document is seemingly more compliant with US FTC regulations than Australian ones – the former applying to children 13 and under, the latter 14 and younger. Sputnik contacted the UK Advertising Association, the industry trade body, for comment on the story – while initially reluctant as "Facebook is one of our members," a spokesperson did note that "all sorts" of advertising channels directly targeted children 13 and over, and this was uncontroversial from a legal perspective. 

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