Facebook has once again publicly denied that they are the new big brother. Now, I'll assume that you're not a huge conspiracy theorist and try to explain why you—yes you—might actually believe they.
I'm sure you've questioned whether Facebook is listening to your real world conversations. Otherwise, how might one explain talking to your friends about organic soy tea and then seeing an ad for that very obscure product on Facebook within days, sometimes hours?
You quickly consider whether you've ever spoken on Facebook about the liquid deliciousness ... nope. Have you commented on someone's status about it? Probably not. So then, the natural conclusion is that Mark Zuckerberg has a secret facility somewhere in the mountains of Russia live recording all Facebook user's conversations through their phone's microphone, right? Oh, so terribly wrong.
In theory, it is possible. iPhone apps can turn on the microphone at any time without informing you, as a researcher pointed out last week. However, it can only do this when the app is open, and this would also break App Store guidelines. Given that Facebook is the biggest app in the world, it probably receives plenty of scrutiny from Apple and Google.
Why does Facebook Want Access to my the Microphone?
On both Android and iOS, Facebook and Instagram do use the phone's microphone—like any other app, however the user must explicitly opt in to give the apps permission.
The main reason it does this is so it can record videos, such as Facebook Live or Instagram Stories. However, this is only activated when a person (ie: you or me) has the Facebook app open and deliberately typing a status update. Facebook has denied it is used for listening to conversations and that it does not "tag" your profile with the data, only using it to build up a chart of the most listened to songs.
So, you understand the theoretically it's possible that Zucks and his crew might be evil because as I'm sure you're aware, tapping into conversations to make ad revenue but not stopping the many attacks that have been planned over Facebook is pretty damn sinister.
But, enough stalling. Let's assume that Facebook isn't listening.
What on earth is going on with Facebook's Ads?
You're imagining things, and so many people do it that there's a name for your condition. It's called the Baader-Meinhof phenomenon, also known as the frequency illusion, and it's a concept that existed long before Facebook came around. If you've ever noticed that you learn a new word or cultural reference, only to then see it used constantly, it's the same feeling. It's a form of cognitive bias—our tendency to assign more importance to things than they deserve. Have you ever bought a new car then noticed so many others driving it? Same shite different pile.
There is another possibility. Online advertisements are targeted based on many different factors: your browsing history, your Facebook interests and so on. Even if you don't feel that you've given Facebook enough data to target an ad about renal failure without it eavesdropping on you, its algorithms may well be sophisticated enough, based on a number of data points, to suggest that you might be the kind of person that's worried about your kidneys.
In layman's terms, you see a thousands ads per day in all likelihood, and you search for all kinds of associative data; of course there will be a link from time-to-time. But, just think of all the times that there weren't a link. You can take your tinfoil hat off now.