Facebook apologises for showing parenting ads to bereaved mother

A computer screen displays logos associated with the social networking site Facebook. (Photo: File, AFP)
A computer screen displays logos associated with the social networking site Facebook. (Photo: File, AFP)

Facebook is facing criticism in the UK after it continued to show ads for baby products to a woman who’d posted on the site that the baby she had been expecting was stillborn.

Anna England-Kerr said that after sharing the news on the social network, she continued to see ads for cots, baby blankets and bottles, and more recently IVF treatments, despite changing settings on Facebook that should have blocked such appearances.

"The onus should really be on Facebook to fix this, and not on bereaved parents to remove themselves from social spaces that help them deal with their grief," England-Kerr said in an interview.

She explained the experience in detail as part of an open letter to the company.

A Facebook spokesperson said in a statement that the company had discovered a bug and an issue with its machine learning models in the Hide Ad Topics feature that England-Kerr had tried to use.

"We are working to address this and improve our product," the company said in the statement. "We’re continuing to invest in our machine learning models to improve detection and prevention of these ads. We’ve spoken to Anna and expressed our deep sympathy for her loss and the additional pain this issue may have caused her."

The controversy comes as the company tries to regain trust with its users after personal information was transferred by an app developer to Cambridge Analytica, a political consulting firm that worked for Donald Trump’s 2016 presidential campaign.

In September it said hackers had exploited several software bugs to obtain login access to as many as 50 million accounts. Last week Facebook said the hack had resulted in the theft of intimate information, including search results, recent locations and hometowns, from 14 million users.

England-Kerr said she received a call on Wednesday from Nicola Mendelsohn, Facebook’s vice president for the EMEA region. She said the executive had expressed her condolences, "and that she was very sorry about how using Facebook had made me feel in the wake of her death."

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