If you’ve ever made the total rookie mistake of buying something on the internet, you already know that ads for similar products will haunt your every online step for years thereafter—nowhere more so than on Facebook, whose targeted ad system ensures I will see diaper ads until my daughters are in high school. But of course, it doesn’t stop there: If you’ve ever been stupid enough to click something—or, God forbid, like something—through Facebook, you’ve already given the company enough data to mine for countless advertisers, with the site’s algorithms instantly synthesizing a marketing-friendly picture of your interests in culture, hobbies, and yes, even politics.
The New York Times picked up on this last bit, noting that Facebook takes the liberty of classifying your political allegiances for you and people who might want to sell you things, ranking along a spectrum of Very Conservative to Very Liberal—even if you never make political posts on the site. (Please, be my friend.) To access this information hiding in plain-ish sight, go to www.facebook.com/ads/preferences. Under the “Interests” section, click the “Lifestyle And Culture” tab, and Facebook will show you a graphic representation of what it thinks of your life, in icon form. Among those boxes should be one labeled “US Politics,” and in parentheses, its best estimation of what you believe.
Even if you’ve never liked the page of a specific party or candidate, nor posted some 1,000-word screed about why Jill Stein is the only progressive choice this November (again, please friend me), Facebook will force an affiliation on you—even, as the NYT says, if it means going off the politics of the people with similar interests, and even if those interests are banal or completely asinine. “If most of the people who like the same pages that you do—such as Ben & Jerry’s Ice Cream—identify as liberal, then Facebook might classify you as one, too,” the Times’ Jeremy B. Merrill writes.
Still, desserts aren’t always right. You might actually notice some fairly strange stuff in your “Interests.” For example, here’s mine, so you can all judge and try to sell me shit:
While Facebook is correct that I like “Culture,” “Civilization,” “Life,” and “Damnation,” it also weirdly seems to think I’m into “Bible,” “Watercraft,” “Juggling,” “Happiness” (meh), “Morning” (nope), “Homework” (NO WAY, DUDE!), and “Tropical Cyclone.” I’m also not sure how Guanyin, the Buddhist goddess of mercy, wormed her way in there. Facebook tells me I’m seeing that because I “clicked on an ad related to Guanyin,” possibly while high. I cannot even fathom what that might have been, but I assume I can look forward to plenty of hilarious ads for “Guanyin Fishin’” T-shirts in the future.
But obviously, Facebook attempting to classify your political beliefs is a slightly bigger deal than it knowing about my secret love of homework. As the NYT notes, political campaigns pay Facebook to target specific audiences; for example, Trump’s campaign has paid to show its ads to “those who Facebook has labeled politically moderate,” rather than the old-fashioned method of just setting money on fire.
Meanwhile, the political interests and biases of Facebook have become a hot topic particularly in this election season, with the Wall Street Journal recently demonstrating the different echo chambers that “blue” and “red” Facebook feeds can create, and Gizmodo revealing that Facebook staff had “routinely suppressed” conservative news stories from appearing in its trending section. Knowing that Facebook is also actively working to delineate its users along party lines certainly adds an interesting wrinkle to its increasing influence on the political conversation. Even if, right now, it mostly just means you see a lot more ads for the Bernie Sanders action figure. (I do not want to buy that, sirs, thank you.)
Anyway, if you’d rather Facebook’s advertisers not know about your politics—or any of your interests—you can always remove the ad preference by clicking the X in the top right corner. Me, I’ll probably go ahead and leave “Life” in there. Like many Facebook users, I could use one.