Are You Being Illegally Targeted by Social Media Ads?

Cloaked Community
4 min readMay 21, 2021


Flip the script on companies using big data in unethical ways.

According to a recent study by Oberlo, there are at LEAST 3.78 billion social media users worldwide.

And of those 3.78 billion users, we can almost guarantee that 100% have been targeted by some form of ad. Whether it’s for an innocuous pop-up clothing store or a life saving medication, these ads depend on the collection of consumer data to target and place goods and services in front of the right people at the right time — which translates into sales for companies, and big bucks for data brokers.

So, what’s ad targeting?

If you’re not a digital marketer or an internet guru, then ad targeting may be a bit of a mystery.

Put simply, it’s a way for marketers to narrow down their target audience by demographics, interests, and consumer preferences.

For example:

The Generic Company wants to sell super yoga pants. They use their customer profile (the description of the types of people who buy their products) to set certain parameters on social media ads. They can choose to target people in New York between the ages of 18 and 35 who have an interest in fitness and yoga.

Targeting like this can give companies an edge and puts goods and services in front of the people who are most likely to benefit from them.

“That’s creepy. How do companies collect my data for these ads?”

The million-dollar question is: “How do social media sites know about your age, location, and diehard dedication to yoga pants?”

This is where it gets sticky. Let’s talk briefly about cross-site tracking (or tracing if you want to get technical).

Apple users have recently experienced a new update that allows them to opt-out of much of the cross-site tracking that happens when they download a new app. Unfortunately, other operating systems still allow social media companies to sneak in permissions allowing them to track your activity while you surf the web.

Doing so allows them to gather data about what you search, your location, and even your medical history. In addition to this, some social media sites also pay very close attention to the groups you join and participate in on their platforms. This provides them with a window into your interests and they use this info to target you with specific ads.

Let’s say you’re in a rheumatoid arthritis support group. Suddenly, you start to see ads for medications, doctors, and even physical therapy devices on your feed. This is a clear indicator that they’ve used your group info to put those ads in front of you.

While this isn’t always illegal, it’s a good idea to research your rights, and report ads on Facebook (we know it feels futile, but reporting is better than nothing) that feel just a little too close to home.

What types of ad targeting are illegal?

What IS illegal was clearly defined in 2019 after Facebook managed to settle no fewer than five major lawsuits by civil rights groups claiming that the social media giant had allowed discrimination via ad targeting in critical industries.

In response to this, the special ads portal was created. This portal eliminates certain targeting options such as age and sex for ads related to the housing, employment, or credit industries.

Basically, if you’re trying to hire new employees, you’d need to make use of the special ads portal to eliminate the potential for discrimination.

Unfortunately, removing age and sex from the social media algorithm does little to stop targeting based on other insights that can infer age and sex. They say it without actually saying it, if you get our drift.

For instance, an ad may not be able to include age and sex, but it CAN focus on a profession or other demographic that the algorithm strongly associates with men in their 30s (ahem, software engineers).

Can people do anything to protect themselves?

As we always say, knowledge is power. And there are some simple ways to turn off targeted ads on Facebook and other social media sites.

For Facebook, go to the settings section and click on “ad preferences.” Here, you should be able to click on a section called “Your Interests.” Once you’ve accessed this list, you should be able to go through all of your interests and remove them. The process can be time consuming, but it’s better than nothing.

Fortunately, when you make these updates to your Facebook page, the changes should carry over to your Instagram page as well.

Twitter is a bit trickier. While it does allow people to opt out of interest-based ads by disabling the “personalization and data” portions of the privacy and safety settings, it will continue to show sponsored ads indiscriminately and update your interests lists with every new add or click through.

These few simple steps may not eliminate ad targeting altogether, but it’s somewhere to start!

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