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How Instagram ads figure out your interests is about more than what you’re liking

You've likely gotten used to the fact that your Instagram feed is littered with advertisements. But have you ever been curious why exactly Instagram is serving you the types of ads that it does? A recent viral trend has people checking to see what ads Instagram believes they want to see, and the results have been surprising — and occasionally just a little creepy.

Last week, reporter Eric Ginsburg tweeted instructions on how to find the topics that Instagram has pinned as interests for advertising purposes. That led to a whole bunch of people discovering for the first time just how much information Instagram has about them, and how hilariously off-base some of the app's assumptions are about our interests.

It's worth noting that being able to check Instagram's ad preferences isn't new. The company has offered the feature for some time now, and its parent company Facebook offers a similar feature. Every once in awhile though, someone rediscovers these features and sets off a chain reaction of people investigating what the apps and services they use every day know about them. While it may not be breaking news, it's important to remind people just how much data these companies have collected from its users and how they use it.

How to check your ad interests on Instagram

Open Instagram on your phone or visit the site on a web browser. Sign in, then find the Settings menu. (This task is easier said than done! On mobile, you'll have to visit your own profile and then open the sidebar located on the right-hand side of the screen. Settings will be found all the way at the bottom of the menu. On desktop, go to your profile and click the gear that appears next to your name.)

Once in the Settings, navigate to the Security menu (it's called Privacy and Security on desktop) and find the Access Data option. Scroll all the way to the bottom of the page and find the Ads heading, where. you'll see an option for Ads Interests. Tap or click the View All option to see what topics Instagram believes you are most interested in.

Instagram will just show you a small selection of the topics it has pegged to you for advertising purposes. You can see more by tapping or click on the View More button, which will continue to populate the screen with topics and terms ad infinitum or until Instagram runs out of things that you have at one point expressed interest in.

Instagram

How does Instagram determine your ad interests?

Instagram in part assigns your interests based on your activity on Instagram, including the accounts you follow and the posts that you like. But that isn't the only place it sources to sort out your preferences. According to the company's support page, it also uses data from Facebook. The two platforms share information pretty freely with one another, especially if you have linked your accounts.

Perhaps more surprisingly, Instagram also uses information collected from third-party apps and sites that you use in order to assign your interests. This is accomplished in a number of ways. First of all, there are apps that you have given permission to access your accounts on Instagram and Facebook. You may do this without even thinking, whether it be to use one of your social accounts to log in or linked the services to gain access to some feature or information.

Another way is through Facebook's trackers that are all over the web. If you see a Facebook "like" button on a site, it is capable of logging your visit and some activity — even if you are logged out. Facebook also uses a piece of code called Pixel that advertisers place on their sites. That code tracks your activity and reports it back to Facebook.

How can I change the ads Instagram shows me?

On a post-by-post basis, you can remove specific ads that you have no interest in. Simply click the three-dot icon next to the post and tap "Hide ad" to make sure you don't see it again.

If you want to make some more widespread changes to the types of ads you see on Instagram, you'll have to venture over to Facebook. Sign in, open your Settings and find the Ads option in the sidebar. This will open up Facebook's rather extensive set of tools to control your advertising experience.

You can look at topics of interest Facebook has chosen for you and remove the ones that you don't want to see under the Your Interests section. In the Advertisers and Businesses menu, you can see which companies have recently told Facebook that you visited their site or expressed interest in their product. You can also see the information on your profile that is shared with advertisers for targeting purposes and toggle whether you want to allow that information to be used or not by visiting the Your Information menu.

The area where you'll be able to make the most impactful changes is under the Ad settings heading. Here, you'll see what kind of information sharing about you is currently allowed, including between Facebook products and third-party partners. To make sure Facebook cannot use data collected by third-party apps and services to target ads for you, change your setting for "Ads based on data from partners" to "Not Allowed." To limit Facebook's ability to share data about you between its own services, make the same change for "Ads based on your activity on Facebook Company Products that you see elsewhere."

Facebook

It's worth noting that making these changes isn't going to affect the number of advertisements you will see on Instagram. Your feed will continue to have the same number of ad posts, they just won't be as targeted and customized for you based on your interests. But that's a price many users are likely willing to pay for increased privacy.