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A big reason for the ad tech backlash is retargeting—the creepy ads that follow you around. The irony is that retargeting is just about the least worrying thing about the surveillance economy. We notice it because it’s in our faces. But by being so obvious, it’s a mere annoyance.
The truly harmful targeted ads aren’t the ones trying to sell us something we’ve already searched for. It’s the ones that undermine our autonomy by covertly manipulating us into new desires and behaviors, molding our consumption patterns to maximize long-term revenue extraction.
Retargeting a fashion product? That’s one sale. Exploiting someone’s vulnerabilities to create insecurities about appearance and instil a negative body image? That’s a lifelong stream of sales. Here’s a striking & depressing example of what that looks like…
Ads have always exploited stereotypes but online ads are more powerful by tailoring messages to individual vulnerabilities. Say you’ve recently quit an addiction. Your past behavior is still reflected in your behavioral profile, and your ads will probably still try to trigger it.
It isn’t easy to prohibit this type of exploitation, because it may not even have been explicitly intended in the first place. Today’s ad targeting uses machine learning, designed to automatically discover and exploit patterns that lead to an increase in clicks and purchases.
Ad targeting isn’t the only covert use of personal data to shape behavior. Addictive apps, filter bubbles, algorithmic radicalization all exploit the same idea: automatically discover and reinforce existing tendencies to create feedback loops that maximize engagement and revenue.
Enabling all this is the most comprehensive surveillance infrastructure in history. While Google and Facebook (deservedly) get a lot of scrutiny, hundreds of third-party tracking companies hold behavioral records of billions. Any one of them could be the next Cambridge Analytica.
So the next time you’re annoyed by an ad that follows you, remember that it’s just a symptom of something deeply wrong with the online economy. Solving it will require more than adblocking. It will require an informed public, legislation, and enforcement agencies with real teeth.
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