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A grieving mother’s plea to internet advertising companies

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She's asking them to change their algorithms to ease the pain of women who've lost children.

When you’ve just gone through the horror of a late-term miscarriage, the last thing you need is to be surrounded by reminders of the baby that you never got to bring home. But that’s exactly what Gillian Brockell had to deal with, when all she wanted to do was find a few minutes’ distraction from her grief by opening her Facebook app.

She wrote an open letter about it, and the experience must have resonated. Her letter has gone viral:

Dear Tech Companies:

I know you knew I was pregnant. It’s my fault, I just couldn’t resist those Instagram hashtags — #30weekspregnant, #babybump. And, silly me! I even clicked once or twice on the maternity-wear ads Facebook served up. What can I say, I am your ideal “engaged” user.

… But didn’t you also see me googling “braxton hicks vs. preterm labor” and “baby not moving”? Did you not see my three days of social media silence, uncommon for a high-frequency user like me? And then the announcement post with keywords like “heartbroken” and “problem” and “stillborn” and the 200 teardrop emoticons from my friends? Is that not something you could track?

She makes a good point. Advertising agencies have incredibly sophisticated ways to figure out what ads to target us with. For better or worse, social media has a tremendous amount of information about us, and and the responsibility that comes with all that data should not be taken lightly. Brockell continues:

And let me tell you what social media is like when you finally come home from the hospital with the emptiest arms in the world, after you and your husband have spent days sobbing in bed, and you pick up your phone for a few minutes of distraction before the next wail. It’s exactly, crushingly, the same as it was when your baby was still alive. A Pea in the Pod. Motherhood Maternity. Latched Mama.

And when we millions of brokenhearted people helpfully click “I don’t want to see this ad,” and even answer your “Why?” with the cruel-but-true “It’s not relevant to me,” do you know what your algorithm decides, Tech Companies? It decides you’ve given birth, assumes a happy result, and deluges you with ads for the best nursing bras (I have cabbage leaves on my breasts because that is the best medical science has to offer to turn your milk off), DVDs about getting your baby to sleep through the night (I would give anything to have heard him cry at all), and the best strollers to grow with your baby (mine will forever be four pounds, one ounce).

The Vice President of advertising Facebook later responded to her saying that while they’re working on the problem, you can always go into your Facebook settings and ask not to get ads related to a number of topics, including parenting. Brockell’s response showed exactly why that solution isn’t good enough. First of all, in the middle of the “panic and confusion of grief,” that’s the last thing you should have to worry about. But more than that:

We never asked for the pregnancy or parenting ads to be turned on; these tech companies triggered that on their own, based on information we shared. So what I’m asking is that there be similar triggers to turn this stuff off on its own, based on information we’ve shared.

Gillian Brockell’s experience is by no means unique, and reliving a seriously traumatic experience because of a triggering algorithm is a kind of pain that no grieving mother should ever have to go through. Let’s hope that the attention her letter got will be enough to spur advertising companies to make some changes.

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