Facebook’s Fake Numbers: Parsing Facebook’s “Reach” Inflation

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This is such a straightforward presentation on Facebook’s significant and systematic exaggeration of how many people see its ads that we’ve decided to embed the analysis by the Video Advertising Bureau and give only a short intro so as to encourage you to read it in full. You can also read it here.

Some observations:

It is remarkable that advertisers and investors have not come down harder on Facebook for the grotesque overstatement of its audience. As the report shows, every way you cut the data, Facebook claims to have considerably more viewers in every age group than exists in the population. For instance, Facebook’s “potential reach” for the 18-34 year old cohort in the US is 97 million, versus an actual population of a mere 75.3 million. That means Facebook says it can get ads in front of 34.2% more people in that age group than actually exists. And the exaggeration looks even more dodgy when you see that the overstatement occurs most in large cities, which generally have higher incomes than the US overall.

This overstatement is even more flagrant when you factor in that Facebook does not have everyone as its customer. Pew found that 84% of all American adults use the Internet as of 2015, so the 16% that don’t clearly cannot be Facebook targets. Facebook makes it impossible to delete an account; many users who have tried to report that the tech company reactivates it down the road and tries to re-enlist them as users. And there is a vocal but indeterminate-in-size contingent of Facebook refusniks.

Advertisers may be unduly jaundiced by virtue of the fact that publishers have a great deal of difficulty stating with any degree of accuracy how many unique viewers they have. There aren’t good ways to tell that a user who visits a site from his phone, his work computer, and his home computer is one person and not three.

But Facebook makes very forceful claims about how much it knows about its users, down to saying that it has their real world identity. The fact that it so grossly overstates how many users it has should lead any advertiser to doubt all of Facebook’s other claims. Facebook’s verifiable whoppers should also give investors pause.

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  1. james wordsworth

    There are also the Facebook “bot” accounts and the “extra” accounts people have. I have several Facebook accounts, all but one fake. It is fun to play with different identities to see how the setup and people work. It was quite easy to accumulate 1000 friends with a fake account, with many of the initial “friends” being obvious “bots”. So the Facebook numbers on reach can be “real” if they are talking about the number of accounts, which with people having multiple accounts can be more than the number of people.

    1. PKMKII

      I’ve noticed a sharp uptick in the number of friend requests I’ve been getting from accounts that are clearly bots for adult content sites. I’m not sure if that’s a sign that the spammers are getting wise to social media being more useful for their purposes than e-mail or pop-ups, or if it’s a sign that Facebook is letting more of them through the cracks in order to puff up their numbers.

  2. wellclosed

    Along with users having multiple distinct gateways, there’s also the time quandary – where users can have 4th-dimensional impacts.

    Laika also had a secret career piloting the Steklov. She unfortunately missed her target re-entry date by a few hours. Having learnt her lesson well, ads will be correctly placed for our 2020 spectacle.

  3. jackiebass

    For a short period of time I had a Facebook account. I canceled it with no difficulty. It’s been years and there has been no attempt to get me to open another account. I could be classified as one of the computer using people that doesn’t do Facebook. When I wish to communicate with friends or relatives I use email or the telephone. I really don’t need or want to have so called friends from Facebook.

    1. Yves Smith Post author

      You are not getting what I am saying. I have had quite a few readers tell me pretty much the same story, and I have seen similar accounts in the press and on blogs. Facebook apparently retains your account information. It does not delete it. Facebook does not attempt to get you to open a new account. It reactivates your existing account and tries to get you to use it again.

      If you stopped using whatever e-mail account you had associated with your FB account, FB’s efforts to entice you into using it again would go into an informational black hole. Do you recall whether you stopped using the e-mail address you used to open your FB account?

      Or alternatively, it could be that you put so little in it in the way of photos and likes and friends that they put you in a category of people they don’t chase (as in their algos assumed it must be a secondary or bot account, that no real person could possible be that resistant to the charms of FB).

      1. jrs

        “Or alternatively, it could be that you put so little in it in the way of photos and likes and friends that they put you in a category of people they don’t chase”

        that must be me … it was too public, made me shy to share too much that wasn’t completely impersonal and for the most part non-controversial to boot (once in awhile I get angry enough about something political for it to slip through, but usually very restrained). Yes, closed with no difficulty, never heard from them after the first few months of closing ( a few begs to come back). If it actually was with another email that it was once originally opened with, then it has to be with an internet provider I don’t even have anymore and didn’t have when I closed it. Somehow I doubt that.

    2. justanotherprogressive

      Sorry, but once you get into Facebook’s web, there is no way out…….you are fooling yourself if you think otherwise…..

      My Facebook “deactivation” story:

      I have only family on my Facebook, but unfortunately a family brou-ha-ha developed a couple of months ago. I was sick of the “tit-for-tat” posts, so I “deactivated”. I would have quit Facebook at the time, but there is no way to do that.

      During that time, my garage door opener broke. I got a referral from my neighbors and went on-ine to look up that company’s number (this was during the time I was “deactivated”).

      Then last week, one of my professors told us about a “cheat sheet” for a class I was taking that was on Facebook, so like a dummy, I went to Facebook to find it (which means I reactivated – there is no other way to see Facebook pages). And guess what? The first thing I saw was an ad for garage doors!

      So apparently I thought I was “deactivated” but to Facebook, nope! I was still one of their “customers”. There is absolutely no difference between “deactivation” and just not going to your Facebook page, and Facebook is still tracking you.

      1. Dr. Roberts

        Browser extensions Browser extensions Brpwser extensions. UBlock origin works well along with privacybadger. Now I just have to set up my own email domain and find a way to launder youtube.

      2. Angie Neer

        This may be picking a nit, but I don’t think your example demonstrates tracking by Facebook. It just means that Facebook taps into the tracking information from Google and everybody else who’s selling it. The bottom line is still that you’re being tracked at every opportunity, but unfortunately stopping that is not as easy as simply avoiding Facebook.

        1. False Solace

          It’s true that the example given by justanotherprogressive doesn’t prove that Facebook specifically did the tracking in that case. However it’s well known and not disputed that Facebook does an enormous amount of tracking throughout every corner of the web. Every website that has a Facebook “like” or “share” button tracks everyone who visits from site to site to site. That consists of the majority of popular sites.

          Facebook maintains profiles for people who don’t have Facebook accounts. How? By harvesting the contacts of people who are Facebook members, and constructing profiles around the people who haven’t signed up.

          In addition, the Facebook app is one of the worst imaginable apps in terms of privacy that I can imagine. It has access to just about everything on your phone, including the microphone, and constantly tracks your location and drains your battery. If you must use Facebook, uninstall the app and use it through a browser only.

          1. Angie Neer

            Thanks for those insights, False. I naively thought FB couldn’t get its hooks into me on other sites if I avoided clicking their stupid “like” button.

  4. The Rev Kev

    I have heard that in the US that many companies and governmental organizations demand the Facebook passwords for job interviewees to check out their accounts and to see what sort of people they were like. People quickly found it wise to have at least two accounts – one for their real social life and all the embarrassing fotos and comments that that might have, and the one to show future job interviewers which would be staid and impressive.
    I am wondering if this may be one of the reasons for more Facebook accounts than people in that age cohort. Years ago Facebook was cracking down on accounts of people not using their legal accounts but I do not know how well that went. Doesn’t really matter as I can see where Facebook is going and I do not want a bar of them. Here is their future-

    1. JTFaraday

      I think this is a good opportunity to diplomatically let one’s new employer know that one considered the possibility of a facebook account but the many news stories about their many coercive deliberate breaches of users privacy were just too disrespectful of users for your taste. Thus, you don’t have an FB account.

      Not everyone will like this answer, but you don’t want to work for them anyway.

      Although really that’s just the tip of the iceberg. The whole interface is a bloody mess.

    1. cocomaan@gmail.com

      I use uBlock Origin so I think that limits some of the FB advertising I see. It also limits the rest of the advertising I see. I am a firm believer in keeping my mind clean from ads as much as possible.

      I haven’t clicked through a FB except by accident in years, probably. I can’t actually remember ever clicking through on one. The only thing that has ever worked on me is individual bands or authors or other folks of that stripe putting out the word that they have a concert/book coming up.

    2. Katy

      It’s impossible not to see at least some ads on Facebook. They are embedded as “sponsored” posts in the newsfeed. Whether or not you pay attention to them is another matter. The more information you give Facebook, the more they can target the ads to your interests.

      I’ve made a game of seeing how many demographic groups I can remove myself from, and how many advertisers I can block. You have to do it one ad at a time. I’ve been fairly successful.

      1. Julia Versau

        I have never made a single purchase based on a Facebook ad, either. In fact, I view it as a sort of anti-ad … I purposely refuse to click on anything (usually get ads for shit I already bought on Etsy or Amazon or whatever) … and I don’t want to encourage the buggers.

    3. lyman alpha blob

      I only pay attention to the Russian ones – they’re so persuasive and I just can’t help myself. I now have a lot of extra borscht I don’t know what to do with though….

  5. cocomaan

    Wolf Richter had an article awhile ago about how P&G slashed its online ad spending and… nothing happened.

    Seems like people are getting wise to online advertising in a big way. People just don’t click through on ads anymore and even the ad exposure from surfing these sites is losing value quickly.

    This could really put an end to some of those Horsemen that Jim and Lambert like to watch run.

      1. cocomaan

        I enjoy being the roadrunner in this case, with Faceborg and Google and the other ad-selling giants trying to chase my attention. Of course, they also have me bought and paid for as well, so it’s a dialectic in a way that the Road Runner show was not.

  6. Meher Baba

    to demonstrate how useful tailored advertising is : there are heaps of people who have purchased something online, later to find an ad for something similar following them or targetting them on facebook. they’ve been so offended or creeped out they’ve vowed to outright cease buying things online / observing ads / purchasing anything that is referred to in an online ad. et cetera.

    1. JustAnObserver

      Read a comment (can’t remember where, maybe even here @ NC)) where some guy needed to replace a toilet, Googled around to find one that would fit, then found that for a long time afterwords ads for sanitary ware kept popping up on various web sites.

  7. Kingfish

    I’ve noticed someone will post a video or Facebook live a local event and suddenly there are 40,000 views. Mind you this is not taking place in some big metropolis.

  8. cfraenkel

    The smart way to advertise on Facebook is to measure results against sales. Then you don’t really care if they inflate their audience. Anecdotally, Facebook ads tend to convert cheaper than other channels, especially on mobile, so the advertising dollars flow their way. Is that because Facebook exposure turns the audience into well conditioned lab rats? Personally, I’m less outraged that they’re fleecing the traditional, impression based advertisers, and more concerned with what they’re doing to our society.

  9. Tyronius

    Facebook has creeped me the (family blog) out since the day I first heard about it. I let my dog set up an account once- and when he started getting unsolicited, not friended notifications about the neighbor’s new job, complete with company name, address and job description, I told him to shut it down.

    It’s refreshing to get confirmation that not only am I not alone in feeling this way, but that company claims of 2 billion people (not including China!) on the site are clearly and shockingly exaggerated.

  10. Synoia

    Clearly Facebook is reporting on its projected number of viewers over the next period.

    You are so unsympathetic to zilllionaire Zuch’s brilliance, acumen, common decency, concern for people’s privacy and his common touch.

    Paid for by the Zuck for King of The World Bowel Movement.

Comments are closed.