Washington Post video editor Gillian Brockell lost her baby boy during pregnancy last month.
She announced the heartbreaking news on her Twitter page to inform people that her son would be stillborn.
"Unbeknownst to us, something went wrong a few weeks ago, he stopped growing and then passed away some time Tuesday or Wednesday," the tweet read.
Some sad personal news pic.twitter.com/ZkBOB7oqUq— Gillian Brockell (@gbrockell) November 30, 2018
The heartbreak and grief of losing her son followed her home from the hospital, tracked her down and haunted her for weeks.
The cause of the heightened and continuous grief? The social media platforms she used.
She was flooded with advertising on social media that was tailored to pregnant women.
Gillian had previously been searching pregnancy terms such as “holiday dress maternity plaid” and “babysafe crib paint” and following hashtags such as "#30weekspregnant and #babybump."
Twitter, Facebook and Instagram knew she was pregnant because of her online engagement and search activity.
The algorithms gathered her information and tailored ads to her interests, one of which had been pregnancy.
But when Gillian received the news about her son, she no longer wished to see such ads, ads generated by these social media platforms that went on to assume that she had given birth to a healthy baby and now wanted to know about the "best nursing bras", "DVDs about getting your baby to sleep through the night", and "the best strollers to grow with your baby."
But she didn't - she was a devastated and grief-stricken mother who desperately missed the baby she had carried for 32 weeks.
The social media algorithms didn't pick up on the search terms “baby not moving” or the keywords in her stillbirth announcement - “heartbroken”, “problem” and “stillborn”.
Gillian wrote an open letter asking tech companies why, if they could figure out she was pregnant, they couldn’t figure out that she had suffered a loss.
"Did you not see my three days of social media silence, uncommon for a high-frequency user like me?", she asked in the letter.
She highlighted the 24,000 stillbirths in the United States each year and the millions more among social media's worldwide users who face the same activity and ad-tailoring on these platforms.
She said that even when the millions of brokenhearted people helpfully click “I don’t want to see this ad,” and even answer the“Why?” with the cruel-but-true “It’s not relevant to me,” that the assumption remains that a happy healthy pregnancy had occurred.
When her letter was published to Twitter, the head of ads at Facebook tweeted Gillian directly with the following advice:
"We have a setting available that can block ads about some topics people may find painful - including parenting. It still needs improvement, but please know that we’re working on it & welcome your feedback."
I am so sorry for your loss and your painful experience with our products. We have a setting available that can block ads about some topics people may find painful - including parenting. It still needs improvement, but please know that we’re working on it & welcome your feedback.— Rob Goldman (@robjective) December 12, 2018
However, in response, Gillian informed him that turning off parenting apps on the platform was ineffective as an adoption ad appeared on her new feed.
And here's a look at how effective it is when you finally do find the corner of Facebook where you can turn off parenting ads. Just came up in my feed. (And no, I have not been googling about adoption. I am miles away from anything but grieving.) cc @robjective pic.twitter.com/bHxcPIoYfW— Gillian Brockell (@gbrockell) December 12, 2018
Gillian's letter has gone viral and has attracted support from fellow social media users.
The social media companies named in her letter have not commented.
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.
You surely saw my heartfelt thank-you post to all the girl friends who came to my baby shower, and the sister-in-law who flew in from Arizona for said shower tagging me in her photos. You probably saw me googling “holiday dress maternity plaid” and “babysafe crib paint.” And I bet Amazon even told you my due date, January 24th, when I created that Prime registry.
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?
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.
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).
And then, after all that, Experian swoops in with the lowest tracking blow of them all: a spam email encouraging me to “finish registering your baby” with them (I never “started,” but sure) to track his credit throughout the life he will never lead.
Please, Tech Companies, I implore you: If your algorithms are smart enough to realize that I was pregnant, or that I’ve given birth, then surely they can be smart enough to realize that my baby died, and advertise to me accordingly — or maybe, just maybe, not at all."