Facebook disables ethnicity-based advertising targeting

1 Dec 2017

Facebook campus, Menlo Park. Image: Lynn Y/ Shutterstock

Facebook’s advertising systems were found to have potential to be used in a discriminatory way.

Last week, a team of journalists at ProPublica published an investigative report, which found that the ad-targeting system on Facebook could be used to discriminate against minority groups in terms of housing advertisements. This report itself was revisiting the subject, as the discriminatory potential of the system had been investigated a year previously.

At the time, Facebook spokesperson Ami Vora said that the test ads submitted by ProPublica should have triggered an extra review, but they did not due to a technical failure. She insisted that the company would tighten regulations: “While we currently require compliance notifications of advertisers that seek to place ads for housing, employment and credit opportunities, we will extend this requirement to all advertisers who choose to exclude some users from seeing their ads on Facebook to also confirm their compliance with our anti-discrimination policies and the law.”

Disabling certain targeting methods

Yesterday (30 November), Facebook COO Sheryl Sandberg confirmed that the company had completely switched off the tools that allow advertisers to choose who to target based on which “multicultural affinity segments” they wanted to reach, or potentially exclude.

According to The Telegraph, Sandberg wrote a letter to the Congressional Black Caucus following a meeting, saying that the tool would be disabled until the company could be more certain that it would not be used in an inappropriate or discriminatory manner.

Facebook working to examine its systems

Journalists bought dozens of ads for rental housing but asked that they not be visible to user groups such as Jews, Spanish speakers and African Americans, among others. All of the ads purchased were approved by Facebook in minutes.

Despite the fact there is a pre-existing federal housing discrimination ban in the US, the journalists found that landlords or other housing bodies could potentially use the targeting methods so people of certain ethnicities would not see adverts in their News Feed.

Sandberg also said the company would be examining how the tools were used, particularly in relation to “potentially sensitive segments”.

She defended the practice of targeting ads based on culture or ethnicity in a general sense, saying that it was a common industry practice within the advertising field. She added that such practices could help “reach people with content that reflects the community with which they identify, or products that are highly purchased by a specific community”.

Sandberg cited the particular benefits of targeting advertisements relating to health to certain cultural and ethnic groups.

Facebook campus, Menlo Park. Image: Lynn Y/ Shutterstock

Ellen Tannam was a journalist with Silicon Republic, covering all manner of business and tech subjects