back to article Stalk my pals on social media and you'll know that the next words out of my mouth will be banana hammock

The phenomenon of "prescient Facebook advertising", so beloved of conspiracy theorists who think social networks listen to your microphone, might instead simply be evidence of how good Facebook's algorithms have become. That's one of the surprising hypotheses to arise from research by boffins from the University of Vermont and …

  1. TRT Silver badge

    Clearly bollocks.

    I get prescient advertising, and I don't HAVE any friends. OK, it's mainly adverts for dating sites... but still.

    *grabs tinfoil*

    1. RFC822

      Re: Clearly bollocks.

      I KNEW you were going to say that!

      1. Anonymous Coward
        Anonymous Coward

        Re: Clearly bollocks.

        I predicted these 2 posts with 99.98% accuracy (allowing for exact wording and punctuation) !!!

    2. Version 1.0 Silver badge

      Re: Clearly bollocks.

      You may think that you don't have any friends but Mark Zuckerberg knows every site that you visit, even if you've never signed up for FB. FB can geolocate you and cross-correlate you with everyone else in who visits the same sites. FB has your number...

      1. Kiwi
        Big Brother

        Re: Clearly bollocks.

        Not with me. FB's known IPs and URLs get blocked at the DNS level (I use PiHole+OpenVPN as my first port-of-call, plus some manual additions to PH). Then pop over to the hopefully-trustworthy Nord and hopefully am presenting lots of different faces (though not running via Nord today).

        Hopefully enough to keep my data away from prying scumbag eyes.

        1. Long John Brass

          Re: Clearly bollocks.

          Hopefully enough to keep my data away from prying scumbag eyes

          Yes; Yes; You have completely hidden your tracks online. Well done you :)

          Oh BTW your are out of toothpaste and also need more tin foil; Don't forget to pick some up on your way home!

          1. Kiwi

            Re: Clearly bollocks.

            Nope, long way from being out of toothpaste. Only use the tin foil when making garlic bread which is only when the bakery is out (Pizza hut still don't know how to make it, even after all this time! (that said, their pizza offerings are nice but still not nearly as good as what I can do!)

            Reminds me, better start whipping up the dough. Guests coming for dinner tonight..

        2. HolySchmoley

          Re: Clearly bollocks.

          >Not with me. FB's known IPs and URLs get blocked at the DNS level


          And how did you block the Apps / OS on your friends' mobiles?


          Almost everyone I know who uses a mobile uses Zuckerberg's WhatsApp and not one asked me whether I'd object to them saying yes to uploading contact details, including mine.

          1. Kiwi

            Re: Clearly bollocks.

            And how did you block the Apps / OS on your friends' mobiles?

            That's easy. I don't have friends who use that :)

            Them having my publicly available phone # and email addresses aren't exactly a matter of concern. You could have those details too if you just knew the right question(s) to ask. I did make them freely available online after all :)

            1. HolySchmoley

              Re: Clearly bollocks.

              >That's easy. I don't have friends who use that :)

              The only way you could be sure is to know that no one regards you as their 'friend', enemy, contact, etc., sufficiently to put details in their Contacts list. How would you know that? How would you be aware of people who /do/ know you and store information about you without realising to whom it's sent to or thinking it worth mentioning?

              >Them having my publicly available phone # and email addresses aren't exactly a matter of concern.

              ... web history... dating apps... financial history... tagged images...etc... etc?

              Such information is accumulated, indexed and sold on. Companies and their data assets are bought and amalgamated. The pieces that hang from an IP address, a MAC address, a Wi-fi access point are amalgamated. Somewhere, some day, someone adds a piece of information that humans recognise and you are no longer a number, or a free man.


              Good on you for trying, but the Zuckerborg, Googleplex, etc. are enormously more powerful.

  2. Pascal

    Funny, a few weeks ago there was this radio show host that was going full-on conspiracy theorist about this -- stating that targeted ads kept coming up for him in a way that made him certain Google was listening to his conversations through his Android phone.

    I guess both are just as likely!

    1. Warm Braw

      I suspect radio show hosts are professionally predisposed to believing they're being listened to, even in the absence of convincing evidence...

  3. Anonymous Coward
    Paris Hilton


    So when seven of your friends reply to a post, made by the eighth, with 'Haha' / 'Congratulations' / 'GYTF' it can predict the next thing you write is 'Haha' / 'Congratulations' / 'GYTF' as well with a 64% success rate? Or am I missing something?

    1. Robert Helpmann??

      Re: Gadzooks!

      Exactly! Statistical significance is not the same thing as real world utility.

    2. Kiwi

      Re: Gadzooks!

      Maybe all it needs to predict is "The next post will be inane worthless drivel".

      There, I just predicted >95% of 'social media' posts for the next 40 years!

      (Now how much of that is my posts on El Reg and elsewhere..... :) )

      1. Sir Runcible Spoon

        Re: Gadzooks!

        You forgot to add the +/- 5% error factor in your prediction.

  4. Aladdin Sane
    Black Helicopters

    I've not had ads like that since the shut down started. The FBI guy on the other side of my webcam must be furloughed.

    1. Version 1.0 Silver badge

      Nope, he's still watching ... oh wait - porn, not you.

  5. Anonymous Coward
    Anonymous Coward

    My Eels are full of hovercraft.

    HA! bet you didn't see that one coming!

    1. Anonymous Coward

      ... didn't see that one coming

      Nope, but then you are an Anonymous Coward and therefore have no known friends to analyze.

    2. EJ

      ... but throw in your friends are Eric, Michael, Terry, John, and Graham, coupled with the fact you're a recently arrived Hungarian, and we could completely surmise it.

      1. Sir Runcible Spoon

        What have the Romans ever done for dead parrots? That's what I want to know.

    3. Cav Bronze badge

      You need to continue with your DuoLingo exercises today.

  6. Shadow Systems

    But what if you don't have an account at all?

    How good are the "Shadow Profiles" at generating useful probability of a potential comment? If it needs to find eight of your friends, but you don't have an official profile with friends it can use to generate those predictions, then how good is their algorithms?

    I imagine it to be akin to looking at the cars your family/friends/coworkers drive & trying to guess what car you drive based on those, ignoring the fact that you may not own a car at all. Or you own a motorcycle instead, or take public transportation, or you ride a donkey because grass is cheaper than gas.

    I do not have & have never had a Twitter account, so how good would their predictions be given that fact? I have had a FB account at one point back in the mists of the Dawn of Time, but that was so long ago I'm not sure it would do any good in making more than a Wild Ass Guess.

    What's my next comment? Wrong. AManFromMars & BombasticBob are experimenting with typewriters & drunken monkies to produce the next chatbot!

    1. iron Silver badge

      Re: But what if you don't have an account at all?

      I would love to get a look at my shadow profile. I've never had a FB account, neither has my partner, and nor do my closest friends. Tracking cookies, etc are blocked on all my devices and have been for years. So they should know very little about me but unfortunately I know my contact details will be in phones belonging to extended family and friends who are users. I often wonder if FB have managed to connect those details to my shadow profile, how much info does it contain and is any of it accurate?

    2. phuzz Silver badge

      Re: But what if you don't have an account at all?

      Presumably FB know who your friends are because they were the ones that clicked "please import all of my contacts into facebook" button when they first signed up. As long as one or two of your friends did that then FB know at least a bit about your social circles.

      1. Kiwi

        Re: But what if you don't have an account at all?

        I have an older friend who cannot see the harm in giving out anyone's details to whoever asks.

        Gave up trying to educate him that my number is my number to give to whom I choose, not whoever he wants. So my number and email are listed.

        Those details and a few about who I associate with (freely available to Google and Apple since few people using their phones make any attempt to stop the location tracking!) I can't stop leaking. But other details are easier to hide as they don't require other people to keep their traps shut.

  7. Christoph

    That's amazing - it can actually predict the awful pun I might be about to post based on something I've seen a few seconds ago?

    That seems just a trifle unlikely.

    1. Anonymous Coward
      Anonymous Coward

      And the puns will start creaming in.

      1. Kiwi

        And the puns will start creaming in.

        Now I'm worried. Who told you what I saw on YT last night?

        (Icon coz.. well, closest we have)

      2. GruntyMcPugh

        Re: Cream

        I treid to wirte a wtity repsonse but I cnat 'cos I hvae sponge fingers.

  8. Anonymous Coward
    Anonymous Coward

    Could this be... indication that 64% of the people who use social media are easily predictable?

    1. Anonymous Coward

      Re: Could this be...

      Or that 64% of them are Russian spambots and it's just worked out the same algorithm they're running on.

    2. veti Silver badge

      Re: Could this be...

      We've long known that words are predictable. That's how predictive typing works, as featured on your phone. (The text I send most often is "Leaving work" - all I have to do is fire up my phone about 5 p.m., select "send text - to spouse", and I can enter those two words in a single tap.)

      I would guess that the more time you spend on social media, the stronger the effect - because social media is very susceptible to "memes" and mobs and bandwagons. Hashtags, basically. If you post about subject X, and your friends have talked about subject X today, then it can't be that hard to predict what you're likely to say next.

    3. GruntyMcPugh

      Re: Could this be...

      Cromarty, Dogger, Fisher Bank, Sou Westerly.

  9. Kiwi
    Black Helicopters

    Gotta be PROactive

    I took a pro-active method to dealing with this ages back. Never had FB.

    But I still get the same effect with the few bits of advertising that get through, including on YT recommended videos - which I'm not normally signed into and these days I generally use a VPN.

    However, I suspect it might be a lot of "that video was going to be suggested anyway, and normally you wouldn't have noticed it, but because the conversation is in recent memory it suddenly becomes more noticeable".

    And how many of our conversations are seeded by recent local events? Car maker has a big problem found in their cars and people are getting rid of them like my moggy gets rid of excess hair strands. Obviously more people are going to be buying new cars so the makers increase advertising. We'll also talk about this. Then along comes the add and "Oh hey, we were just talking about that. They must be listening!".

  10. earl grey

    might have a problem

    as i'm not on FB and don't have any friends.

    no, i'm not the trumpybear.

  11. VikiAi

    I don't have any friends. .... Will you be my friend? ( The really creepy coat is mine ----> )

    (This one is also a good response to any marketing types that ask if you have any friends that might be interested in their crud! ... especially if you don't feel like going full Arthur Dent vs Nutrimatic Drinks Dispenser that day.)

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