The Shadow knows

… or if Lamont Cranston isn’t available, Facebook will know. In this Maddie Dai cartoon from the April 23rd New Yorker, Facebook knows, immediately:

(#1) “And, just like that, Facebook is giving us ads for used cars, optometrists, and couples counselling.”

Smash the car, you’ll need a replacement; trouble seeing what’s in the road, you’ll need an optometrist; forthcoming disagreement over who was responsible, you’ll need couples counselling.

And magically, invisibly, Facebook is aware of all this.

Now, the Shadow would be able to see all this:

(#2) Orson Welles as the voice of the Shadow; Who knows what evil lurks in the hearts of men? The Shadow knows…

The Shadow is the name of a collection of serialized dramas, originally in 1930s pulp novels, and then in a wide variety of media, and it is also used to refer to the character featured in The Shadow media. One of the most famous adventure heroes of the 20th century United States, the Shadow has been featured on the radio, in a long-running pulp magazine series, in American comic books, comic strips, television, serials, video games, and at least five films. The radio drama included episodes voiced by Orson Welles.

… In the radio drama, which debuted in 1937, The Shadow was an invisible avenger who had learned, while “traveling through East Asia,” [or “through the Orient” or “long ago in the Orient” or “years ago, in the Orient”] “the mysterious power to cloud men’s minds, so they could not see him.” (Wikipedia link)

You can’t see him, but he’s there, observing.

The Shadow, invisible but all-seeing, is a fictional creation, but a great many people seem to think of Facebook as a real-life entity with the Shadow’s remarkable abilities: whatever you do, whatever you say, whatever you even just think, Facebook knows — and immediately sends you ads for possibly relevant goods or services. As in Maddie Dai’s cartoon above.

The Facebook Knows belief. A correspondent in the communications team at Facebook wrote me a while back about a recurring story that pops up every few months: the absolute conviction that FB is using a person’s microphone to spy on conversations, upload them to their system, and use that information to target personalized ads. FB has explicitly denied this, in a 6/2/16 press release “Facebook Does Not Use Your Phone’s Microphone for Ads or News Feed Stories”.

There are good reasons why FB could not possibly be doing this (though nothing prevents them from keeping track of who talks to who); a linguist’s first reaction to the Facebook Knows belief is a rueful chuckle: acoustic data from ordinary conversations are unimaginably (and unmanageably) bigger than text data from written exchanges, and the task of extracting useful content from such acoustic data is ridiculously far beyond the current abilities of AI methods: Facebook Knows is pure science fiction.

For an entertaining critique of the Facebook Knows belief, consider this WIRED magazine piece from 11/10/17 by Antonio García Martínez, “Facebook’s not listening through your phone. It doesn’t have to” (hat tip to Elizabeth Daingerfield Zwicky):

In the bright-eyed naiveté of my first few weeks as Facebook’s first leader of the ads targeting effort, I’d eagerly confront each new conspiracy theory.

“Is Facebook scanning my photos and using that for ad targeting?” was one from a Los Angeles Times reporter. “My cousin uploaded a photo of her boyfriend in a San Francisco 49ers jersey, and now I’m seeing 49ers ads. How’d that happen?”

And so it went.

I’d also field new targeting ideas from Facebook employees themselves, who would construct just-so stories around some niche piece of user behavior, and how that could move the needle on Facebook’s already soaring ad revenue (e.g. ‘show burger ads to people who checked into In-N-Out’).

Inevitably, the conspiracy theories and new ideas would die on the rocks of the threefold criterion I eventually formulated to debunk or discard (almost) all of them.

Is it possible?

Is it common?

Does it work?

Feasibility, ubiquity, and efficacy: Those filters demolish almost every Facebook conspiracy theory you’ll ever hear.

One that you may have heard recently: Facebook snoops on you via your smartphone’s microphone. As with all such theories — 9/11 truthers, Obama birthers, ‘grassy knoll’ advocates — there’s just enough seeming evidence to wrap a story around.

… But it’s all bullshit.

Let’s put our corporate-branded Facebook product-manager hoodie on for a closer examination. Even if you haven’t deleted the Facebook app from your phone, or relegated your phone to a soundproof box, a quick walkthrough of this most recent theorizing will demonstrate just how Facebook thinks about monetizing you, and why your microphone doesn’t factor in.

Then the details. (On the writer, from the WIRED site: Antonio García Martínez (@antoniogm) was the first ads targeting product manager on the Facebook Ads team, and author of the memoir Chaos Monkeys: Obscene Fortune and Random Failure in Silicon Valley. He wrote about the internet in Cuba in WIRED’s July issue.)

Where does Facebook Knows come from? Martínez concludes:

So what explains all these eerie anecdotes and viral YouTube videos? The vast majority seem to amount to confirmation bias, the internet equivalent of wondering why it always rains after you wash the car. You’re watching the video of the one Facebook user who experienced some improbable event, and ignoring the millions of users who had no such odd coincidence.

Not that every such coincidence is false. Some are pure correlation-means-causation confusion. Go back to that uploaded 49ers jersey photo. What really happened: The 49ers were playing that weekend, explaining both the jersey being worn, and an ad campaign simultaneously targeted at the SF Bay Area. One didn’t cause the other; both were caused by some externality the reporter had ignored.

The harsh truth is that Facebook doesn’t need to perform technical miracles to target you via weak signals. It’s got much better ways to do so already. Not every spookily accurate ad you see is a pure figment of your cognitive biases. Remember, Facebook can find you on whatever device you’ve ever checked Facebook on. It can exploit everything that retailers know about you, and even sometimes track your in-store, cash-only purchases; that loyalty discount card is tied to a phone number or email for a reason.

Before you stoke your Facebook rage too much, know that Twitter and LinkedIn do this as well, and that Facebook copied the concept of  ‘data onboarding’ from the greater ad tech world, which in turn drafted off of decades of direct-mail consumer marketing. It’s hard to escape the modern Advertising Industrial Complex.

The short version to all this tin-foil-hat theorizing: There’s no way Facebook is eavesdropping on you right now. But it is tracking you in other — no less insidious — ways you’re not aware of. To quote the soldier’s maxim, it’s always the shot you don’t hear that ultimately gets you.

How did I get into this story? Via my writing on the Frequency Illusion. The folks at FB came across me through this article on the Pacific Standard website on 7/22/13, “There’s a name for that: the Baader-Meinhof Phenomenon; When a thing you just found out about suddenly seems to crop up everywhere”:

Your friend told you about that obscure bluegrass-electro-punk band yesterday morning. That afternoon, you ran across one of their albums at a garage sale. Wait a minute — that’s them in that Doritos commercial, too! Coincidence … or conspiracy? More likely, you’re experiencing “frequency illusion,” somewhat better known as the Baader-Meinhof phenomenon.

Stanford linguistics professor Arnold Zwicky coined the former term in 2006 to describe the syndrome in which a concept or thing you just found out about suddenly seems to crop up everywhere. It’s caused, he wrote, by two psychological processes. The first, selective attention, kicks in when you’re struck by a new word, thing, or idea; after that, you unconsciously keep an eye out for it, and as a result find it surprisingly often. The second process, confirmation bias, reassures you that each sighting is further proof of your impression that the thing has gained overnight omnipresence.

The considerably catchier sobriquet Baader-Meinhof phenomenon was invented in 1994 by a commenter on the St. Paul Pioneer Press’ online discussion board, who came up with it after hearing the name of the ultra-left-wing German terrorist group twice in 24 hours. The phrase became a meme on the newspaper’s boards, where it still pops up regularly, and has since spread to the wider Internet. It even has its own Facebook page. Got all that? Don’t worry. You’ll hear about it again soon.

Highlights from my postings:

AZ on LLog, on 8/7/05: “Just between Dr. Language and I”, my first posting on the Recency Illusion and Frequency Illusion

on this blog on 12/9/15, “A prevalence of left-handers”:

The label frequency illusion is mine (from an 8/7/05 Language Log posting); the phenomenon is also known under the more colorful label Baader-Meinhof phenomenon (a name taken from an instance of the phenomenon),  from a 1994 comment on the St. Paul Pioneer Press’s online discussion board, by someone who noticed hearing the name of the German terrorist group the Baader-Meinhof Gang twice in 24 hours.

(There is a Page on this blog –“Illusions postings”, under “Linguistics notes” — with links to postings on the many illusions.)

My original posting connected the phenomenon to two well-known cognitive biases in psychology: selective attention (once you’ve noticed something, you are more attentive to occurrences of it than you were before) and confirmation bias (in which you’re inclined to collect instances of the phenomenon, as confirming your hypothesis about its frequency, and discount the many disconfirming instances in your experience).

on this blog on 12/7/16, “Interview with a supremo”:

On the SNAP.PA site (PA is the Press Association in London) yesterday, a piece by Thomas Hornall, “After you learn a new fact it appears everywhere again and again – here’s why”, about the frequency illusion

In conversations with people from FB, I came to realize that another cognitive bias contributes powerfully to the Facebook Knows belief: the Denial of Randomness, the belief that everything happens for a purpose, nothing happens by chance, there’s a story behind every event. So if FB sends you an ad for something, that’s because they’re targeting you specifically for that ad.

The Denial of Randomness is an article of faith for many and works itself out in various ways: in victim-blaming, in particular,       where people assume that a victim must have done something to bring on whatever misfortune has befallen them.

The artist for #1. Return now to the cartoon that set off these Facebookish reflections. From Maddie Dai’s website:


Maddie Dai is a Kiwi illustrator, designer, and animator who recently made the move from New York City to London. Her hobbies include writing tweets, eating ramen, and getting rejected by The New Yorker. She is currently working with Purpose, where she uses visual storytelling and strategic creative content to tackle the world’s toughest challenges.

Dai has managed to get a few cartoons accepted by the New Yorker — for instance:


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