As you most expectant mothers do as they prepare to give birth, they'll gather all the necessary accouterments and diligently do frequent Google searches for what they might need when their baby arrives. They'll use the #babybump hashtag on Instagram. That's exactly what journalist Gillian Brockell was doing until she discovered the awful and terrifying news that she had lost her baby. Although she had shared this heartbreaking news with her friends, family, and followers on social media, she continued to see baby and parenting ads whenever she logged on. On Tuesday, she penned a gut-wrenching open letter after her stillbirth to Facebook, Twitter, and more that so eloquently notes how those ads are incredibly painful to see.
Brockell of The Washington Post lost her son, Sohan Singh Gulshan, just last month, as she shared in a heartbreaking note on Twitter. She wrote that she delivered him stillborn at the end of November. Her loss was clearly difficult, but coping with her grief was made more difficult by the algorithms used by social media companies to generate ads in the aftermath of that loss.
"I know you know I was pregnant. It's my fault. I just couldn't resist those Instagram hashtags - #30weekspregnant, #babybump. And stupid me! I even clicked once or twice on the maternity wear ads Facebook served up," Brockell began her open letter to Facebook, Instagram, Twitter, and Experian that's gone viral.
Despite the fact that the tech companies might have been tracking all of the usual, positive pregnancy activity on her social media feed, Brockell wrote in her letter that it seems they weren't tracking everything.
"But didn't you also see me googling 'Is this braxton hicks?' and 'baby not moving?' Did you not see the three days of silence, uncommon for a high-frequency user like me?" Brockwell wrote. "And then the announcement with key words like 'heartbroken' and 'problem' and 'stillborn' and the two hundred teardrop emoticons from my friends? Is that not something you could track?"
After she came home from the hospital "with the emptiest arms in the world," Brockell discovered her social media feed was "exactly, crushingly the same as it was when your baby was still alive." As she wrote in her letter, she found ads for nursing bras, tips to help babies sleep — ads that assumed her pregnancy had a happy outcome.
Brockell wrote in her letter that she tried to turn off the ads, but was hit with a sort of accidental cruelty. When she clicked on the question "I don't want to see this ad," she was forced to give her reason with "the cruel-but-true 'It's not relevant to me.'"
But perhaps worst of all, as Brockell wrote, she was hit with "a spam email" from Experian encouraging her to "finish registering [her] baby" she never started "to track his credit throughout the life he will never lead."
Brockell ended her open letter with a plea to tech companies to strive to do better, writing:
Please, Tech Companies, I implore you: If you're smart enough to realize that I'm pregnant, that I've given birth, then surely you're smart enough to realize my baby died, and can advertise to me accordingly, or maybe just maybe, not at all.
In a statement to Romper, a Twitter spokesperson said in response to Brockell's letter: "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."
Rob Goldman, Facebook's vice president of ads, also issued a statement on Twitter. "I am so sorry for your loss and your painful experience with our products," Goldman wrote. "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."
Romper's requests for comment from Instagram and Experian were not immediately returned.
Brockell's post resonated with thousands of people on social media in the hours after it was shared. "Thank you for your bravery in posting this. I hope it spurs a change," one person commented on Brockell's tweet.
Another shared, "In 2013, I had a term stillbirth and absolutely could not handle social media for months. Thank you for bringing this up. Wishing you lots of peace and healing in the coming months."
"As someone who works in the industry, my peers and I need to do better, because we’ve created very blunt tools that cause terrible outcomes such as this," one more responded.
This isn't the first time tech companies have been called out for ad targeting following a tragedy. Back in October, Facebook issued a public apology to U.K. resident Anna England-Kerr after she lost her baby and continued to be hit with parenting ads. According to Bloomberg, Facebook issued the following statement at the time: "We are working to address this and improve our product. We’re continuing to invest in our machine learning models to improve detection and prevention of these ads. We’ve spoken to Anna and expressed our deep sympathy for her loss and the additional pain this issue may have caused her."
This is an issue that will, sadly, affect so many women; more than 26,000 babies are stillborn every year in the United States, according to the National Institute of Health.
Coping with the loss of a baby is terrible and having to see reminders of what was lost on social media only compounds that grief. Hopefully Brockell's brave, beautiful open letter helps to enact change.
Editor's Note: This article has been updated to include Facebook's statement from Rob Goldman.