Facebook didn’t identify when an expectant mother’s pregnancy ended in a stillbirth
When Gillian Brockell returned home from hospital after enduring the tragedy of a stillbirth, she found social media was no escape.
- Tech companies uses data and algorithms to tell when a user is pregnant and target them with relevant ads
- Gillian Brockell says the companies didn’t detect that her pregnancy resulted in a stillbirth, despite the signs
- Facebook vice-president apologises, saying “we’re working on it”
The Washington Post journalist has penned an open letter to the likes of Facebook, Twitter and Instagram for being smart enough to give her pregnancy ads in the months leading up to the birth of her son, but supposedly blind to the tragic outcome.
“I know you knew I was pregnant,” she wrote.
“It’s my fault, I just couldn’t resist those Instagram hashtags — #30weekspregnant, #babybump. And, silly me! I even clicked once or twice on the maternity wear ads Facebook served up.”
In her letter posted on The Washington Post and also on Twitter, Brockell said tech companies surely saw her posts, photos and comments about her baby shower and her searching for things like “holiday dress maternity plaid” and “babysafe crib paint”.
“And I bet Amazon even told you my due date, January 24th, when I created that Prime registry,” she said.
“But didn’t you also see me googling ‘braxton hicks vs. pre-term labor’ and ‘baby not moving’?
“Did you not see my three days of social media silence, uncommon for a high-frequency user like me?
“And then the announcement post with keywords like ‘heartbroken’ and ‘problem’ and ‘stillborn’ and the 200 teardrop emoticons from my friends?
“Is that not something you could track?”
@gbrockell photo tweet: An open letter to @Facebook, @Twitter, @Instagram and @Experian regarding algorithms and my son’s birth
Brockell described what it was like returning home from hospital “with the emptiest arms in the world, after you and your husband have spent days sobbing in bed, and you pick up your phone for a few minutes of distraction before the next wail”.
“It’s exactly, crushingly, the same as it was when your baby was still alive,” she said.
“A Pea in the Pod. Motherhood Maternity. Latched Mama. Every damn Etsy tchotchke I was considering for the nursery.”
Algorithm biases ‘assume a happy result’
While Facebook does offer the option to click ‘I don’t want to see this ad’, that proved no help.
“Do you know what your algorithm decides, tech companies? It decides you’ve given birth, assumes a happy result, and deluges you with ads for the best nursing bras,” Brockell said.
The biased design of many algorithms in the tech world have been well documented before, with facial recognition better trained by engineers to correctly identify Caucasian faces instead of black faces, or features like voice assistant programmed to tell jokes but not to help someone who says they’re suicidal.
In most cases these are unintended biases that work their way into the designs of apps.
US tech author and design expert Sara Wachter-Boettcher, who has written a book on algorithm biases, told ABC News last year that these types of issues were “surprisingly common” in Silicon Valley.
Tech companies spend their energy trying to “delight” users, and that’s what their algorithms focus on, with little attention to where they may break down and do the wrong thing, Ms Wachter-Boettcher said.
Facebook VP says they’re ‘working on it’
In Brockell’s case, her tweeted open letter received more than 20,000 shares and reach Facebook’s vice-president of advertising, Rob Goldman.
He tweeted back saying Facebook was working on it.
“I am so sorry for your loss and your painful experience with our products,” Mr Goldman tweeted.
“We have a setting available that can block ads about some topics people may find painful — including parenting.
“It still needs improvement, but please know that we’re working on it & welcome your feedback.”
Facebook could tell when Brockell was pregnant but wasn’t smart enough to pick up data on the stillbirth. (AAP – File photo)
Brockell said she knew there was a setting to customise and block certain ad topics, but it was buried in the Facebook settings and she initially could not find it.
“We never asked for the pregnancy or parenting ads to be turned on; these tech companies triggered that on their own, based on information we shared,” she wrote.
“So what I’m asking is that there be similar triggers to turn this stuff off on its own, based on information we shared.”
And after actually turning off ads for the parenting topic? This is what Brockell saw:
“Just came up in my feed. (And no, I have not been googling about adoption. I am miles away from anything but grieving),” Brockell tweeted.