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News Literacy Week: How algorithms lead to targeted ads

Posted at 4:02 PM, Jan 25, 2021
and last updated 2021-01-25 19:38:28-05

OMAHA, Neb. (KMTV) — We've all seen advertisements on the internet that seem almost too specific, leading many to wonder if some mysterious entity is listening in on our private conversations.

Don't be alarmed — no one is listening — but with every interaction, we create a world online that is tailored exactly to us. While some view this as invasive, others believe it enhances the online experience.

"Algorithms are used quite a bit in digital media and marketing. So it can help you zero in on an audience or target to reach a particular outcome," said Rod Coleman, head of paid media at Bozell.

Coleman adds that on a basic level, we can think of an algorithm as a recipe — using sets of data, like ingredients, to get users a specified result.

The data set processed by an algorithm looks at past actions a consumer has taken.

"It's not that it can read your mind... but it knows that maybe you liked an image or something like that so it's using that probability that this product would be of interest to you," said Coleman.

Marketers use parameters to know who to target ads towards for a campaign.

As parameters work to categorize consumers, algorithms process lots of data to find users who are most likely to use a product or service.

“Some of the general public may not understand that every like, every share, every comment is used to help them find relevant content, or be served relevant content, whether that's an ad or an article," said Coleman.

Google users who opt to have ad personalization on can actually see how the search engine categorizes you and estimates your interests.

"We all use algorithms... we don't even think about them," said Creighton professor Brian Kokensparger.

While algorithms help users save time by giving such specific information, Kokensparger said most people have no idea how much data is collected and used.

"You know, you might say, ‘What's the harm in that?’ and to some people, there is no harm. You know, some people just don't do click-throughs," said Kokensparger.

Kokensparger adds that more awareness is needed to make sure people of all ages use the internet wisely.

"I think maybe there is a generational gap between people who just basically trust that a website, especially a social media site, is working in their best interest... and that trust may or may not be well-placed,” said Kokensparger.

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