I know it makes me a traitor to my own millennial generation, but I have to admit: I have never read a Harry Potter book. I do not like Harry Potter. I haven’t purchased or Google-searched anything Harry Potter-related, and I certainly have never “liked” anything about Harry Potter on Facebook. So why does Facebook think otherwise?
This has been the question on my mind for months as I scroll through my hollowed out Facebook News Feed. Usually only filled with posts from my parents’ friends and perfectly targeted ads, it now frequently “suggests” content from an alarming number of Harry Potter fan and meme groups.
The posts are a bizarre collection of viral memes remade with Harry Potter characters, posts about the actors who play characters in Harry Potter movies, memes based on Harry Potter movie scenes, and just pure fandom posts about how great Harry Potter is.
Maybe it was the bad memes that grabbed my attention, or the groups’ cringe Potter-themed names – “The Ministry Of Magic,” “Everything HP Universe” “Hogwarts Great Hall” – but whatever it was, I just knew I wanted it to stop.
With a basic understanding of how algorithms and cookies and other internet things work, I thought it would be a simple fix. I went to my News Feed preferences, where an option to “unfollow” groups is given. Yep, exactly what I was looking for.
But no. Facebook only presented me with the option of unfollowing groups that I willingly followed. There was nothing Harry Potter to unfollow.
I looked for an “I don’t want to see this” or “why am I seeing this?” option on the drop-down menu of meme groups in my feed, but those were not options either. The only option was to “hide” or “snooze” posts from that specific group.
So I began “hiding all.” Goodbye, “Seriously Serious Black.” So long, “Society for the Promotion of a Harry Potter TV Series.” I hoped this would inform the algorithm of my preferences and the other groups would disappear. I gave it several weeks. Nothing changed. Even worse, new Harry Potter groups seemed to fill the void of groups I blocked.
I checked all my options in Facebook settings but found nothing helpful. I reached out to media contacts at Facebook and was handed off to a communications team member who specifically handles groups. After exchanging emails for a week, all this team member came up with was what I had already tried.
“To learn more about content that’s showing up in your Feed, you can click on the three dots on the upper right-hand corner of the post and then click on ‘Why am I seeing this,’” the comms person suggested. I reiterated that I had already tried this and that there is in fact no “Why am I seeing this,” option available on these posts, and she told me would check with the team again.
I could generate a “Why am I seeing this,” option on other types of posts in my feed. Facebook would tell me I’m seeing a certain ad because of my age or other sponsored posts because of my geographic location, but never an explanation for what about my demographics suggests I’m interested in Professor McGonagall content.
At this point, it was more than just about getting the memes to stop, although I wanted that too, I really wanted to know why this was happening and why Facebook couldn’t give me an explanation. I turned to Facebook experts. One was former Facebook employee Antonio García Martínez, who specified that he had worked on the ads team at Facebook, not on their growth team, where he believes this problem lies.
After I explained my plight and he confirmed what I had recently learned about Facebook communications — that they are “famously bad” — Martínez offered two possible explanations for why Facebook was mistaking me for a Harry Potter fangirl.
The first is that Facebook is making recommendations for me based on content that my “friends” have liked or engaged with. “It’s very possible that unbeknownst to you, maybe in a closeted format, you have lots of closet Harry Potter friends who are super into Harry Potter,” Martínez suggested. So in the same way that Netflix recommends movies based on the movies I’ve watched that other people have also watched, Facebook is recommending content based on what people similar to me like.
I explained that besides logging in and scrolling, I’m not really an active Facebook user. I don’t make friend requests, write posts, share photos, comment or engage with posts, or even use Facebook messenger, which leads to the second possibility Martínez and another expert I spoke with floated.
“Maybe they have very little data and they are basically overfitting you based on what little data they have,” Martínez said.
But if Facebook is just making a wild guess about my interests based on my age and other demographics, why Harry Potter? And why memes? Why not “The Office” or “Grey’s Anatomy”? Why is it so frequently and consistently Harry Potter? And again, is there no option to make it stop?
Both experts were not sure it was possible.
“You can block individual pages and people, but you can’t really opt out of the ‘don’t show me sh-t related to this,'” Martínez said.
Of course, I’m not the first person to encounter unwanted content on her news feed. A Washington Post column by Gillian Brockell went viral in 2018 when she wrote about the trauma she faced every time she was fed a pregnancy ad after delivering a stillborn baby.
In November, Meta (Facebook’s new company name) announced they would be removing advertisers’ ability to target users based on “sensitive” categories like health, religion, sex, and thousands of other topics. Unwanted ads are clearly a problem, and exactly why Facebook gives users the “Why am I seeing this?” button on ads, but what about on the unwanted “suggested topics,” that were plaguing my feed?
After exhausting all the scenarios, it seems I have only two options, and neither is practical nor enticing. The first is to get new friends, even though I doubt any of my current ones are closeted Harry Potter super fans.
The second is to start engaging and interacting with Facebook more so the algorithm can gather the data it needs to more accurately reflect my interests. I don’t want to do that, and don’t plan on it, especially now that I realize perhaps that was their plan all along.