An investigation conducted by ProPublica found that Facebook’s ad system fails to protect civil liberties.
Not only can Facebook’s system allow advertisers to target specific demographics, advertisers also have the opportunity to exclude entire groups of people based on their “Ethnic Affinity.”
In ProPublica’s investigation, the publication placed a housing ad on Facebook’s advertising portal that targeted Facebook members who were house hunting. Because of the tools allotted to advertisers by Facebook’s system, ProPublica was able to exclude, “anyone with an ‘affinity’ for [being] African-American, Asian-American or Hispanic.”
According to ProPublica, Facebook claims its policies prohibit advertisers from using the targeting options for discrimination, harassment, disparagement or predatory advertising practices.
“We take a strong stand against advertisers misusing our platform: Our policies prohibit using our targeting option to discriminate, and they require compliance with the law,” Facebook’s privacy and public policy manager, Steve Satterfield, told ProPublica. “We take prompt enforcement action when we determine that ads violate our policies.”
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Satterfield says that Facebook began using the “Ethnic Affinity” system within the past two years, claiming that “Ethnic Affinity,” as far as the company is concerned, is not the same as race. As a Facebook member, your “Ethnic Affinity” is assigned to you by the company based on pages and posts you have engaged with or liked while on the social media platform.
While Satterfield supports and defends Facebook’s exclusion practices for advertisers, Paula Edgar, president of the Metropolitan Black Bar Association – the largest association of African-American and other minority attorneys in NYC – finds these exclusion tools to be “troubling.”
“The potential for illegal race-based discrimination in areas such as housing based on this advertising sorting protocol is troubling,” Edgar tells ESSENCE. “If this tool is used to exclude certain protected classes from opportunities, Facebook and the business user could be guilty of violating local, state, and federal laws.”
While Satterfield also argued that the option was to assist advertisers testing their marketing performance, Edgar offers other means by which this data could be collected without infringing on users’ civil liberties.
“The utility of audience targeting via social media is a helpful tool for businesses, however similar data about audience and user make up can be mined after the ad has run to enable businesses to create targeted strategies for varying demographics,” Edgar refuted in a statement to ESSENCE.
When asked by ProPublica why their housing ad excluding minorities – a violation against both The Fair Housing Act of 1968 and The Civil Rights Act of 1964 – was approved just fifteen minutes after the ad was placed, Facebook declined to answer.