A British woman has given a powerful account of being unable to turn off targeted Facebook adverts after giving birth to a stillborn baby.
Anna England Kerr's daughter Clara was stillborn in June of this year. England Kerr noticed that due to her online activity during her pregnancy, her Facebook feed was full of parenting ads. She adjusted her ad preferences to try and shut down the adverts, but they kept appearing in her feed.
"I hadn't expected everything to change immediately, but I figured the sooner that we changed preferences then the better it would be and the easier it would be to go back to Facebook," she told Business Insider.
However, altering her settings proved ineffective. "When I went back on I realised absolutely nothing had changed," she said. "In fact, I think all of my ads were selling baby-related products."
England Kerr found Facebook to be a useful tool following her bereavement, because through it she found support groups. But the constant presence of baby-related ads made it painful.
"The price for reaching out and for being able to contact that support is seeing baby ads that are a constant reminder of what I will never have with my daughter," she said.
As well as attempting to block the promoted posts, she started reporting ads as "not relevant," and tried to retrain the algorithm by clicking on non-baby promotions. She also installed an ad blocker, but it only disabled adverts in the sidebar, not sponsored content. "I really did try anything I could think of," she said.
Four months after Clara was born, England Kerr had had enough. "I decided that during baby loss awareness week that I was going to write an open letter to Facebook." She published the letter on her blog and on Facebook, in which she said Facebook was "unintentionally taunting" her with reminders of her grief.
The story was picked up by the BBC, and England Kerr encouraged people to file lots of bug reports to try and make Facebook sit up and take notice.
A phone call from a top Facebook executive
After the BBC contacted Facebook for an official response, England Kerr received a phone call from Nicola Mendelsohn, Facebook's vice president of EMEA.
Mendelsohn expressed her condolences, apologized that Facebook had made her feel worse, and promised that this would be a high priority issue to fix. She told England Kerr that the reason she continued to see the ads was that there had been a bug in the hide ad topics tool.
"We've spoken to Anna and expressed our deep sympathy for her loss and the additional pain this has caused her. We discovered a bug and an issue with our machine learning models in the Hide Ad Topics feature. The bug has been fixed, but we are continuing to improve our machine learning models that detect and prevent these ads," a Facebook spokesperson told Business Insider.
England Kerr said she's yet to notice any change, but had been told that the fix could take a while to be fully implemented. "It hasn't happened yet, but I imagine it's a fairly complicated fix," she said.
England Kerr said that she was surprised but pleased to receive the call. "I think that increasingly companies consolidate and they get larger, people calling to apologise is very rare. I do really appreciate that."
But she added: "As much as I am appreciative of her call, I'd rather there was an easier way to flag up problems.
"I'm not the only one this has happened to, I've shared my experiences in other groups, lots of people responded the same and that they've been affected by these ads as well. The more data that online platforms that advertise to us have about us, then the more potential there is for targeted ads to go terribly wrong."
England Kerr doesn't have an immediate answer for how to make sure Facebook responds more effectively to people who are being hurt by microtargeted ads, but she believes "a lot more thought needs to be put into the human side of what it means to be advertised to online."
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