Facebook Allows Advertisers to Exclude Users Based on Their Race

Facebook Allows Advertisers to Exclude Users Based on Their Race

The system allows advertisers to keep members of certain "ethnic affinities" from seeing ads

October 28, 2016

Facebook is in hot water over its advertising practices again.

ProPublica reports that the social network allows advertisers to target specific users based on several factors, including interests, background, and a category it calls "Ethnic Affinities." This category allows advertisers to exclude specific groups.

Federal law prohibits the exclusion of people based on race, gender, and other such sensitive characteristics in the areas of housing and employment.

ProPublica purchased an ad targeting members of the network looking for houses and excluding members with an "affinity" for African-American, Asian-American, or Hispanic people. When the news outlet showed the racial exclusion options to civil rights lawyer John Relman, he was stunned.

"This is horrifying," he said. "This is massively illegal. This is about as blatant a violation of the federal Fair Housing Act as one can find."

The Fair Housing Act, passed in 1968, prohibits "to make, print, or publish, or cause to be made, printed, or published any notice, statement, or advertisement, with respect to the sale or rental of a dwelling that indicates any preference, limitation, or discrimination based on race, color, religion, sex, handicap, familial status, or national origin."

Those found to be violating this law can be fined thousands of dollars.

The Fair Housing Act is not the only law applicable to this situation; 1964's Civil Rights Act also makes illegal the "printing or publication of notices or advertisements indicating prohibited preference, limitation, specification or discrimination" when recruiting for jobs.

The business model that Facebook uses is grounded in letting advertisers target—or apparently exclude—specific groups of people with the massive amounts of personal data it has collected about its users. Such micro-targeting is especially helpful for those advertisers who want to reach specialized audiences, e.g. voters residing in swing states who are worried about climate change.

Facebook claims that its policies do not allow advertisers to use these targeting options for purposes of discrimination, harassment, disparagement, or predatory advertising.

"We take a strong stand against advertisers misusing our platform: Our policies prohibit using our targeting options to discriminate, and they require compliance with the law," said Steve Satterfield, Facebook's privacy and public policy manager. "We take prompt enforcement action when we determine that ads violate our policies."

According to Satterfield, it is important that advertisers be able to both include and exclude groups when testing the performance of their marketing. He gave an example in which an advertiser "might run one campaign in English that excludes the Hispanic affinity group to see how well the campaign performs against running that ad campaign in Spanish. This is a common practice in the industry."

Satterfield stated that Facebook started to offer the "Ethnic Affinity" categories during the past two years as part of an effort at "multicultural advertising."

Satterfield claimed that "Ethnic Affinity" is not the same thing as race, which, he said, Facebook does not ask users about. Rather, the network assigns an "Ethnic Affinity" to members based on the pages and posts they have either liked or engaged with on Facebook.

The New York Times (NYT) takes a different approach in the advertising it publishes. After it was sued in 1989 under the Fair Housing Act, the newspaper put controls in place to review for potentially discriminatory content in ads before accepting them for publication.

According to Steph Jespersen, director of advertising acceptability at NYT, the staff runs certain automated programs to ensure that ads with such discriminatory phrases as "whites only" and "no kids" are rejected. The program also flags ads containing potentially discriminatory code words like "near churches" and "close to a country club." Once these are flagged, a human then must review the ad before it can be approved.

Jespersen stated that most advertisers know by now not to submit a discriminatory ad.

"I haven't seen an ad with 'whites only' for a long time," he said.