It’s an internet truth universally acknowledged that a person in possession of a womb must be in want of a pregnancy test. Or an ovulation stick. Or perhaps some adorable matching mama-and-baby leggings.
The internet knows when you’re pregnant. Or, at least, it has very strong ideas about when you should be pregnant.
I got my first targeted pregnancy test advert precisely a fortnight after we got back from our honeymoon. Facebook stopped showing me ‘print your own wedding photos – so simple, so cheap!’ adverts, and this was its next logical guess. Never mind that Dan and I were temporarily living in two different cities at the time, for work reasons, not even in the same postcode most of the time, let alone the same bed.
Back then, I accepted this algorithm-based reproductive pressure as just part of the background noise of being female online, as I think many women do, whether they want kids or not. For a while I found the internet’s idea of who I was and what my life was vaguely amusing. (#everydaysexism)
Here’s where it stops being funny. The internet thinks it knows when you’re pregnant, but the internet pretends to have no idea when you then have a miscarriage. Or if your baby is stillborn.
Its hand-picked adverts for Pregnacare and maternity wrap-dresses and carry-cots live on long after you’ve stopped bleeding, or had your fledgling, heartbeat-less baby surgically extracted from your body.
Long after the last molecules of pregnancy hormone have ebbed away, these ads follow you around the internet, running viral in the bloodstream of your online life. ‘Birthday’ emails from pregnancy apps you forgot you downloaded. Pram adverts that blink at you from as you fire up your work computer on your first day back in the office post-miscarriage. In the age of Google ads, Facebook and Instagram, every website you visit after you lose a baby comes furnished with your very own sidebar of shame, failure, and shattered hopes.
At the end of this post, I’ve included some tips on how to change your settings to give yourself the best chance of avoiding these baby loss malgorithms. But it would be wrong to assume or imply that these bad ads are largely self-inflicted, on the basis that, well, you were googling maternity jeans a week ago…give the internet a chance to catch up.
Because the internet won’t catch up. There is a bigger problem here, seemingly built in to the system. While you can do a bit of damage control, the supposedly all-seeing algorithms are blind to loss. Oblivious even to its possibility; a perfect, gormless mirror of a society that is obsessed with pregnancy, until that pregnancy doesn’t make it.
Tech companies simply don’t seem to have designed their targeted ad systems to recognise words such as: miscarriage, stillbirth, infertility. Worse – if you use a compound term such as ‘pregnancy loss’ or ‘baby loss’ on your social media accounts, it seems to function the same as if the word ‘loss’ simply wasn’t there.
I say this with confidence because, after four miscarriages and setting up social media accounts dedicated to the subject – and for promoting this blog – I get more baby-related content than ever.
This is despite changing all my settings after my first miscarriage, and periodically reviewing them to make sure I’ve not been involuntarily signed up for any parenting-related content again. Almost all my own posts on Instagram are tagged #miscarriage and/or #ihadamiscarriage and I frequently hide Instagram adverts for maternity stuff. And yet still they keep coming. In the last few days alone, I’ve been shown ads for moses baskets, baby-gros and been followed from a brand account flogging baby-led weaning tat.
My explore page on Instagram shows me pregnancy announcements and bump photos from people I don’t follow. It ‘suggests’ that I might like memes that say things like ‘tell my husband all I want for Valentine’s Day is not to get pregnant…again’. Not so hilarious or #relatable when the thing you want most in the world is to have a healthy baby.
And I’m sick of it. I’m sick of clicking ‘this post is not relevant to me’, again and again, in the vain hope the algorithms might get the message, and nothing changing. I’m sick of accepting it, swallowing the unwelcome feelings these adverts and suggested posts projectile vomit all over your screen – in what are supposed to be positive, personal, social spaces.
Facebook, for its part, has said it is ‘working on it’ after Washington Post reporter Gillian Brockell wrote an open letter on this subject after her baby was stillborn back in December.
But frankly, you have to wonder why it should take so long, given that it’s currently possible for anyone to create an advert on Facebook and plug in that they want to target 42-year-old male, ex-pat, volleyball enthusiasts, who are interested in dating and use Chrome to browse the internet (seriously, I checked). If that level of specificity is already possible, what’s the hold-up on adding some sort of option that lets baby brands, parenting bloggers and pregnancy test manufacturers tactfully exclude bereaved parents or anyone who might have googled ‘miscarriage’, ‘stillbirth’, ‘infertility’?
If you too, have been gotcha-ed by the algorithms, by all means do follow the steps below. But if we really want to beat them, I think we have to go further. We need to use our voices and make enough noise so that tech companies can’t ignore us any more.
People much cleverer than me have argued that while the internet was meant to be a mind-expanding utopia, apps, algorithms and AI have actually only served to amplify society’s existing biases and silences. Baby loss is a taboo in real life, ergo to internet companies it simply doesn’t happen.
So please, share this post. Tweet about it. Tweet at the tech bosses. Clapback at inappropriate accounts that follow you because they can’t distinguish between ‘pregnancy’ and ‘pregnancy loss’. Tell any brands and parenting bloggers who you think might be mortified to know they could be unwittingly targeting us with their content.
We don’t just need to break the silence, we need to bloody well roar.
How to hide the ads…
Instagram says it bases the ads it shows you on your activity on other apps and sites. This makes it a bit trickier to control ads you see in the app directly. You could, in theory, disable cookies in whichever browser you use – on every device that you use/log into your email on – to try to stop ads following you around the internet, but personally I don’t feel this is always very practical. (This primer explains it better than I could though, if you want to give it a try).
The best thing to do, according to Instagram, is to hide individual ads as they crop up – click on the three dots hovering above the ad’s picture (top righthand corner) and it will give you the option to ‘hide ad’. When you click ‘hide ad’ it will ask you why you don’t want to see it, with some options. I usually go for ‘it’s not relevant to me’, but there’s also ‘I see it too often’. In theory, Instagram will use this information to tailor what it shows you. And because Instagram is owned by Facebook, changing your ad settings there should help too…
Go to settings (the menu icon in the bottom righthand corner on the app) scroll down to ‘Settings & Privacy’ and then select ‘Settings’. Scroll down to ‘Ads’ and click where it says ‘Ad preferences’. This page will show you your interests, which brands you’ve clicked on or bought from, and also the option to hide ads on certain topics, so there a few things you can do here to reduce the chances of being shown baby stuff.
First check the things Facebook thinks you’re interested in. It looks a bit like this:
If you click on each one (on the three little dots) it will ask if you are interested in it at the bottom, so if there is anything on there along the lines of ‘family’ or ‘parenting’ then remove them (it feels brutal to say you’re ‘not interested’ in these things, I know).
In the ‘Your Information’ section you can also change which bits of info Facebook can use from your profile – for example, I’ve stopped it letting advertisers reach me based on the basis that I’m married, as I’m guessing a wedding is a big tick for any companies flogging pregnancy tests and the like. (Because the internet thinks like a 50s schoolmarm).
You can also opt to hide certain categories of adverts (click on ‘Hide ad topics’) – one of the suggested topics is ‘Parenting’. Just because it’s listed here, don’t assume it already applies to you. You have to click on the Parenting option and then select how long you want to hide this topic for. (While you’re in this section, you can also suggest other topics to qualify as ‘hide ad topics’ – I sent in ‘pregnancy’, I’d love it if they got a deluge of similar suggestions…)
Finally, have a look at your ‘Advertisers’ section – this will show you every brand you’ve clicked on an ad for previously, but there’s an option to de-select any brands you no longer wish to hear from, so if you’ve clicked on any maternity or baby brands on Facebook, this is your chance to erase them.
Personally, I haven’t found Twitter ads to be such a problem – but that might be because I don’t spend as much time there as I do on Instagram. There are a couple of things you can do though that might help – full disclosure though, I haven’t tried these myself so can’t vouch for the difference. Go to settings and privacy (click on your profile pic in the app, and scroll down to the bottom of the menu) and then select ‘privacy and safety’ and then ‘personalisation and data’. Here you can change what information Twitter uses to personalise the ads and content you see. One of the options is ‘personalise based on your devices’ – turning this off, I suspect, should help to stop any pregnancy related adverts following you over from other websites, Google etc.
In the main ‘settings and privacy’ menu there’s also a section called ‘content preferences’, which gives you the option to mute certain words, so you could in theory add that you don’t want to see any tweets using the word ‘pregnancy’, but this would also stop you seeing any tweets about pregnancy loss, so may not be that helpful, depending on what you use your account for.
Clear your computer’s search history to help shake off any ads that are following you around. Go to whichever internet browser you use – so Safari, Chrome, Internet Explorer etc – and there’s usually a fairly obvious ‘clear history/clear search history’ in the main drop-down menu.
If Facebook and Instagram ads are a particular problem, try not to use the ‘log in with Facebook’ option when you use a new app or website. As much as it makes life easier, not doing this helps to break the chain between Facebook and the rest of your internet use (at least I think that’s the idea).
Do you still get bad ads even after you’ve changed your settings? Please do share your stories – or any other advice I might have missed – in the comments…