Social network suspends ethnicity ad targeting as review explores potential abuse and exclusion.
Over a year ago, public service investigative journalism platform ProPublica discovered an unsettling feature on Facebook. At the time, advertisers could target or exclude specific demographics of users with their ads based on factors like gender, religion, and ethnicity. Facebook happily gathered the information based on users’ voluntary profile information but also from the algorithms linked to their likes, shares, and posts.
On the surface, this feature made sense; after all, advertisers pay to put their posts in front of users based on population size, say, 150,000 views for X-amount of money. It doesn’t pay to purchase ad views if the demographic has no need of your product. This is also something that has long been in place in television and radio advertising. It’s why the daily drama programs have been called “soap operas” all this time, as the advertisements during those mid-day shows targeted women who happened to be home watching the programs with ads for detergents and other household products.
Here’s the rub
Here’s the problem that ProPublica uncovered, though: there was really no quality control in the ads and how the advertisers selected who should see them. That means ads for higher education grants could be targeted to exclude people of color and women, or ads for hate groups could be designated to only be seen by Jewish users, minorities, immigrants, or other identifying features. That could result in the spread of political ideas that say, “You’re not welcome here,” while also letting white users say, “I’ve never seen any nasty ads from the group! Fake news!”
Moral and legal issue?
First and foremost, this is illegal. Targeting people who happen to be home during the day with ads for oven cleaner is acceptable, but somehow ensuring that only one race can see those ads is not. Even more importantly, other laws pertaining to key industries can be broken with this feature, as in a realtor selecting to only let white people see the listings for homes for sale in a new, upscale neighborhood. That was feasible–and apparently happening–with Facebook’s system.
The company has now stated they’re disabling this feature, but ProPublica tried again soon after this announcement. All of their ads were intentionally discriminatory and sought to exclude members of certain religions and ethnicities, and all off the ads were approved. For its part, Facebook has issued a statement that said the approval of these ads was due to a “technical failure.”