The news that Cambridge Analytica collected the data of millions of Facebook users without their consent has a lot of people freaked out about how much Facebook actually knows about us, and what it’s doing with our personal information.
Frankly, people are pissed. A #DeleteFacebook campaign started trending on Twitter, and even Elon Musk deleted the Tesla and SpaceX Facebook pages in protest. Amid mounting public pressure, Mark Zuckerberg and Sheryl Sandberg went on an apology press tour, promising to do better in the future. But this scandal isn’t going away just yet, and people are starting to more closely scrutinize how Facebook and Google collect and use their data.
But even before the Cambridge Analytica fallout, we’ve all known that Facebook knows a lot about us. And that’s how it sells ads — by using all that stuff it knows about us to help advertisers target us with their ads.
But… What about Instagram?
OK. First of all, Facebook owns Instagram.
Of course you already knew that; you’re a smart cookie. But in a recent survey by the Verge, 60% of people didn’t know that Facebook owns Instagram. So, just making sure we’re all on the same page here.
Instagram and Facebook use the same advertising tool.
Instagram advertising IS Facebook advertising, and vice versa. If you want to run an ad on Instagram, you do it through the Facebook ad tool. And both Instagram and Facebook share the data they collect about you with each other and advertisers.
So there is no such thing as Instagram-only ads?
Brands and marketers can choose to have ads run only on Instagram and not show up on Facebook. But they still have to place the ads through the Facebook ad manager. So yes, ads can be tailored to only appear on Instagram, but all of that is handled in Facebook’s ad system.
Advertisers can target you based on both your Facebook AND Instagram accounts.
They are essentially one and the same, as far as advertising is concerned. Advertisers can target you on your Instagram based on your Facebook profile, and they can target you on Facebook using information collected from your Instagram account.
What if my Instagram and Facebook are totally different, though?
Let’s say your Facebook is pretty normal, but your Instagram is something totally weird or specific, like only pictures of your dog, and you only follow viral dog accounts. You’ll still see ads on Instagram that are based on the overall profile Facebook has created about you, based on all the things it knows about you from both Instagram and Facebook.
Are my likes and follows on Instagram part of what advertisers can use to target me?
Yep. Your likes, your follows, and even everything you search for or just browse through on Instagram and Facebook can help advertisers target you.
What the fuck?!
So do brands know if I like a Kim Kardashian selfie?
Not exactly; they don’t know that you liked it, but all of your Instagram activity is rolled into a whole set of data that advertisers can use to target people like you.
How does a brand use my Instagram activity to target me?
Let’s say an online shoe store wants to target new potential customers. One way it can do this is to upload a list of their customer emails into the Facebook ad manager. Facebook can identify those people from their emails, and then it analyzes those people based on everything it knows about them. Then, it comes up with a new, similar group of potential customers — and that’s who the shoe store should target with its ads. So while your Instagram likes might just be a small detail about you, they help advertisers target you.
What if my Instagram is private?
Sorry, they’re still using your data to target you with ads. Going private on Instagram only affects how other users can see you, and has nothing to do with your data or ad targeting.
What if I use a “finsta” that’s separate from my regular Instagram?
If you’re switching between accounts in the app, it knows they’re connected to the same Facebook account. You might see different ads on the two accounts based on your activity, but they both use your Facebook profile to target you.
Is Facebook or Instagram listening to what I say? The other day I was talking about something out loud and then saw an Instagram ad for it.
No, although lots of people certainly have noticed the same thing. The trick is, Facebook is so good at targeting you that it can tailor Instagram ads scarily well.
I noticed an Instagram ad for something I looked at online recently — what’s up with that?
Facebook has a pixel that tracks you as you surf around the web (unless you’re using a private browser or are logged out with no cookies). So Facebook can target you based on what you do online outside of Facebook and Instagram.
Should I delete my Instagram??!!
Your call. If all of this freaks you out so much you’re willing to give up the fun and joy of Instagram, then delete. But if Instagram and Facebook bring you joy, then… Here are some tips on how to limit the data you give Facebook.
BuzzFeed’s own Nick Greene, one of our in-house advertising experts (yes, we target people on Facebook to advertise to them too), helped explain some of the details in this post about how Facebook and Instagram ad targeting works.
Katie Notopoulos is a senior editor for BuzzFeed News and is based in New York. Notopoulos writes about tech and internet culture is cohost of the Internet Explorer podcast.
Contact Katie Notopoulos at firstname.lastname@example.org.
Got a confidential tip? Submit it here.