Is Instagram Listening to Our Conversations?

I think it’s time to begin a conspiracy theory series. A teacher I had in high school would do this every Thursday, and the class loved it. Even if the conspiracies were completely outrageous, it was fun. And everyone loves a good conspiracy theory, so why not? The first one I want to look at hits home for most social media users and has been around for quite some time. Does Instagram listen to our conversations? Personally, I never paid attention. Then a first-hand experience happened last week that convinced me it isn’t just a conspiracy.

Allow me to explain. Murray State dining services does this thing every week called Wing Wednesday, which is pretty self-explanatory. My friend and I love it because they serve vegetarian wings (and we’re vegetarians). All day, we constantly talk about how excited we are for the wings. One day last week, my other friend (she eats meat) showed us an ad that popped up on her Instagram about vegetarian chicken nuggets. She joked that she had been hanging around us too much and that the FBI was picking up on our convos. But I was weirded out. It could’ve been coincidental… but then we tested it further.

So, my meat-eating friend simultaneously scrolled through Instagram and openly talked about her love for Zaxby’s wings. Next, she closed the app, reopened it, and repeated the same thing. I kid you not, the very next day she got an Instagram and YouTube ad for Zaxby’s Caribbean Jerk Boneless Wings. And she kept getting them. And if you look online about the conspiracy, you will find an endless number of articles from people claiming the same idea. There are crazy stories about Instagram ads popping up when people randomly talk about specific products they had never spoken about, liked, or browsed before.

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Instagram isn’t the only app that’s been called out for scary-specific ads. It originated with Facebook. Users noticed similar patterns many years ago, and people believe it still happens. Same with Instagram, the thought is that Facebook records what you say through the phone’s microphone. Of course, it has been denied. Mark Zuckerberg himself recently denied it at his hearing in front of Congress. But people have thought this for so long that Facebook created a page solely dedicated to debunking the conspiracy. Others say it isn’t true because our phones collect data other ways and that’s how we see the ads. Specifically, our phones know what we browse, purchase, our locations, what we like/share, etc.

True. Our phones know our habits. But what about the Zaxby’s wings that my friend purposefully said into Instagram? And the thousands of other people with similar stories to this one. People have claimed this for years. So, how did Instagram and YouTube know? My friend had never searched Zaxby’s wings (or anything related) on Instagram and especially not on YouTube. The ad was too specific and calculated to have been a coincidence. I don't know, but I definitely believe it.