Gillian Brockell, who works as a video editor for The Washington Post, was pregnant for 32 weeks before the unborn child unfortunately passed away in utero, causing her to have a stillbirth.
According to Brockell, the pain of her traumatic experience was only made worse by targeted advertisements on social media. The ad marketing algorithms all believed she was pregnant and constantly reminded her of what she'd been through by trying to sell her products for her deceased child.
Brockell commented to BuzzFeed News:
"The most painful thing is losing my child. But going back to social media is very painful because of the advertising."
@gbrockell @facebook @Twitter @instagram @Experian Gillian, I'm so very sorry for your loss! I know we don't know e… https://t.co/qUtysBeb3V— Liz Wheeler (@Liz Wheeler)1544572691.0
She tried to "teach" the computer that she was no longer pregnant by selecting that the ads were "not relevant" whenever the option was presented.
Unfortunately, her computer drew the wrong conclusion.
"I was trying to teach it that I wasn't pregnant anymore, but it seemed what it learned was that I had delivered."
Instead of going away, as she'd hoped, the incessant ads simply became targeted towards new mothers instead of expectant ones.
@gbrockell @facebook @Twitter @instagram @Experian I'm so sorry, Gillian. Thank you for your bravery in posting thi… https://t.co/FP14nYA2oi— Jody Avirgan (@Jody Avirgan)1544564244.0
The final straw was when Brockell received an email from credit-monitoring company Experian "inviting [her] to finish registering [her] child for lifetime credit tracking," (which she hadn't ever started).
"I could not believe I was getting spam emails to track my dead child's credit."
Brockell penned an open letter to the tech companies that targeted her online asking how they were able to tell she was pregnant, but unable to figure out that it had ended in grief.
An open letter to @Facebook, @Twitter, @Instagram and @Experian regarding algorithms and my son's birth: https://t.co/o8SuLMuLNv— Gillian Brockell (@Gillian Brockell)1544560283.0
The full text can be seen here.
Part of her letter reads:
"You see, there are 24,000 stillbirths in the United States every year, and millions more among your worldwide users."
"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. Every damn Etsy tchotchke I was considering for the nursery."
@gbrockell @facebook @Twitter @instagram @Experian Ten years ago, the amazing hospital where I delivered my stillbo… https://t.co/1twZrZ0h47— Amy D (@Amy D)1544570306.0
"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)."
Brockell's letter resonated with many, causing it to go viral and for many readers to reach out to her on social media with support. Of the responses, Brockell said:
"It's just people saying that happened to me too, and I'm sorry."
Facebook made me a very nice Year In Review video, compiling random pics I posted. But this was NOT a very nice ye… https://t.co/aiPSZRVTCM— Bobby Choquette (@Bobby Choquette)1544630246.0
@gbrockell @facebook @Twitter @instagram @Experian this is so eloquently put and I am so sorry and angry the algori… https://t.co/yjMSkMmCRY— Alexandra Petri (@Alexandra Petri)1544564629.0
@gbrockell My deepest condolences. Thank you for speaking out.— Leah McElrath (@Leah McElrath)1544566140.0
@gbrockell @facebook @Twitter @instagram @Experian I am so sorry for your loss! I teach Mathematics, and I would li… https://t.co/7sQeqh1thw— Kenny (@Kenny)1544568772.0
@gbrockell @facebook @Twitter @instagram @Experian This is absolutely heartbreaking. I’m sorry. As someone who wor… https://t.co/8n3cmBTvGU— Jason Almeida (@Jason Almeida)1544564519.0
@gbrockell @facebook @Twitter @instagram @Experian I’ll make sure all of my computer science students will see your letter.— Hawkguy (@Hawkguy)1544566123.0
@gbrockell @facebook @Twitter @instagram @Experian Gillian, what a brave thing you've done here, and in the midst o… https://t.co/GQhmWsxMll— Connie Schultz (@Connie Schultz)1544586297.0
When approached for comment by Buzzfeed News, Facebook directed readers to a tweet in response to Brockell made by their head of ads, Rob Goldman.
@gbrockell @facebook @Twitter @instagram @Experian I am so sorry for your loss and your painful experience with our… https://t.co/2s2P0fF6Im— Rob Goldman (@Rob Goldman)1544587981.0
Though Gillian would eventually learn how to disable the posts, she also thought the process was unnecessarily complicated considering companies were able to automatically turn them on, but then unable to realize they had become irrelevant.
To turn off the painful ads, Brockell went into Facebook Settings > Ad Preferences > Hide ad topics > Parenting.
But even after changing her settings, ad companies still found a way around Brockell's preferences.
And here's a look at how effective it is when you finally do find the corner of Facebook where you can turn off par… https://t.co/lOhlG7Op1J— Gillian Brockell (@Gillian Brockell)1544656434.0
Twitter also responded to Brockell's targeted ads. In their official statement, they said:
"We cannot imagine the pain of those who have experienced this type of loss. We are continuously working on improving our advertising products to ensure they serve appropriate content to the people who use our services."
@gbrockell @facebook @Twitter @instagram @Experian The same thing happened to me on @Pinterest after we lost our pr… https://t.co/o5Zk13HKjg— Maggie Myszka (@Maggie Myszka)1544566073.0
Around 24,000 parents experience a third-trimester stillbirth in the U.S. annually and Brockell says the most important thing you can do if you know someone who's gone through that experience is to simply let them know they're in your thoughts.
"It can be a lonely feeling."
@gbrockell @SophyRidgeSky @facebook @Twitter @instagram @Experian Heartbreaking. I lost four pregnancies (although… https://t.co/62zp50uoSR— Julia Hartley-Brewer (@Julia Hartley-Brewer)1544565153.0
@gbrockell @facebook @Twitter @instagram @Experian Thank you for having the courage to share this.— Killian Walsh (@Killian Walsh)1544563862.0