A devastating story is making its way around Twitter, telling the tale of an indifferent algorithm that got everything right except the sad finale.
Washington Post video editor Gillian Brockell sent out a plea to Facebook, Google, Twitter, Instagram, and Experian, begging them to improve their algorithms. In the tweet, she explains that when she was pregnant, she shared her joy on social media. She used Instagram hashtags like #babybump, wrote baby shower thank-you notes on Facebook, and Googled “babysafe crib paint” and maternity clothes. She was served up ads that matched her new interests.
But then she started Googling other things like “baby not moving” and posting on Facebook about being heartbroken that her child was stillborn. Her friends weighed in with teardrop emojis. The algorithms that populate the internet were clever enough to figure out she was pregnant, but not clever enough to figure out when she was not. They kept serving her ads that compounded her heartache, Brockell writes. When she clicked, “I don’t want to see this ad” to give herself some respite, she says the algorithm decided she had given birth—and so it gave her new, more painful ads. That led her to Twitter to plead with the companies to do better.
Brockell writes: “If you’re smart enough to realize that I’m pregnant, that I’ve given birth, then surely you’re smart enough to realize that my baby died and can advertise accordingly, or maybe just maybe, not at all.”
— Gillian Brockell (@gbrockell) December 11, 2018
Reached for comment, Facebook pointed to a tweet from its VP of ads, Rob Goldman, who apologized to Brockell and said Facebook has settings that allow users to block ads about painful topics, although he conceded the feature “needs improvement.”
Facebook has attempted to filter out some of the more painful memories from its “On This Day” feature—which resurfaces images and posts from your Facebook past. But how its algorithm decides what to show is a complete mystery. In the past, it has chosen to highlight dead pets, a burning apartment, a father’s ashes, and other jarringly sad images. (Web developer Eric Meyer’s post, Inadvertent Algorithmic Cruelty, sums it up well.) While Facebook users can filter out specific dates, people, and memorialized accounts from their memories, users are still very much at the mercy of algorithms, especially when it comes to ads—no matter how heartless and indifferent they may be.
Update: Google claims they do not allow targeting users on the basis of pregnancy status, because it is a health or medical condition and their personalized ads policy prohibits targeting based on health or medical conditions. If people want to stop seeing targeted ads altogether, you can adjust account settings, which is just what a grieving person wants to do.