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Facebook Falls Under Fire For Exaggerating The Number Of People The Platform Can Reach

by Penn Collins

September 7, 2017

While few would be surprised by most any figure that Facebook shares regarding its seemingly endless reach, Facebook’s methods for deriving statistics made available to advertisers have been once again called into question, and the most recent discrepancy appears to be a patently quantifiable issue. Facebook touted to its advertising partners through its proprietary Ads Manager feature, the platform’s ability to “reach” 41 million Americans aged 18-24. To a layman, the number may not appear to be outside the realm of possibility, but a researcher offered a summary rebuttal as to why that simply isn’t possible. 

The 2016 census data shows that only 31 million people in that age group reside in the United States. 

Similarly, the company’s claim that it could target 60 million Americans aged 25-34 is undercut by census data revealing only 45 million people in that age group reside in the U.S. 

Brian Wieser of Pivotal Research Group was the party responsible for revealing the discrepancy, which has put Facebook’s practices, long held under lock and key, under the media microscope. 

Facebook has countered the accusation of number inflation by offering a high-level explanation of what goes into determining the company’s audience reach. A Facebook spokesperson offered that estimates “are based on a number of factors, including Facebook user behaviors, user demographics, location data from devices, and other factors.” She added, “They are not designed to match population or census estimates. We are always working to improve our estimates.”

Claiming that the company’s figures were never meant to stack up against census figures, one must ask, “What, exactly, is Facebook’s reach intended to convey to data-hungry advertisers?”

The data, according to the Wall Street Journal, is intended to reflect the data that users with Facebook accounts share with the platform. Further introducing the possibility for error is the fact that ultimate figures are extrapolated from sample sizes using guarded methods. These two factors don’t change the fact that advertisers are charged based on the users they reach and not the person behind them. Based on these discrepancies, an advertiser paying to reach the 18-24 American demographic could be charged as much as 32% to reach fake, duplicate, or otherwise “empty” accounts. 

The issue, once initially examined, appears to be surfacing among other demographics and markets as well. 

This controversy comes after several smaller allegations that Facebook inflated the reach advertisers were being charged for with their campaigns. Facebook attributed the errors to a “measurement bug” and quietly doled out refunds to the affected parties. 

This more recent and glaring development serves as a natural, albeit valid, criticism from the many enemies and competitors of the social media juggernaut. 

The most interesting fallout may be the changes Facebook makes to either produce more conservative reach estimates or provide more transparency in how they derive the figures. If history is any indication, they’ll pursue the former.

Share image via Esther Vargas/Flickr

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