Facebook halts advertisers from using targeting to exclude racial groups

Tell me if you’ve heard this one before: Facebook is disabling some ad-targeting options because it’s been revealed how those those options can be used to discriminate against people.

First, some backstory. A little over a year ago, Facebook came under fire for enabling advertisers to skirt federal housing laws and use its quasi-racial ad-targeting options to discriminate against people based on ethnicity (African American, Asian American and Hispanic). Then, earlier this year, Facebook said that it would institute a system to reject housing-, employment- or credit-related ads that exclude racial groups. However, last week, ProPublica revealed that system to be porous. In response, Facebook is temporarily disabling advertisers from using its multicultural affinity ad targeting options to exclude people in those segments from seeing an ad.

“ProPublica recently found that safeguards we put in place earlier this year were not as comprehensive as they should have been. This was a failure in our enforcement. We must do better,” said Facebook’s VP of ads growth and solutions Rob Goldman in an emailed statement.

But here’s the thing. It was clear back when Facebook announced those safeguards that they were not comprehensive. Here’s what I wrote at the time:

When the system is finally in place, it won’t be impermeable. It will be like a road work section along a highway, with signs telling drivers to slow down, that penalties are doubled but that can’t physically slow down a driver until a cop pulls them over. In Facebook’s case, the system will show alerts at different points in the ad-buying process. If the Page buying the ad is categorized as a housing page, for example, when that advertiser clicks to begin creating an ad an alert will appear informing them of Facebook’s policy. Same if and when the advertiser opts to use an ethnic affinity targeting option.

If the advertiser doesn’t heed Facebook’s warnings and Facebook’s automated approval system isn’t able to recognize any violations in the ad, then the ad can still be shown to people, and it will be up to those people to recognize if the ad is discriminatory and flag it to Facebook.

It was ProPublica, not Facebook, that found the ongoing flaws in the system. Now that the inadequacy of Facebook’s system has been revealed, the company is reviewing its ad-targeting options for the second time in almost as many months.

In addition to disabling brands from using its multicultural affinity targeting for exclusion targeting, Facebook is reviewing how its portfolio of ad-targeting options can be used to exclude “other potentially sensitive segments (e.g., segments that relate to the LGBTQ community or to religious groups),” according to Goldman’s statement.

Facebook will also require advertisers “to certify that they understand our anti-discrimination policies and the law when using multicultural affinity segments for inclusion on ads on Facebook. These self-certification measures will be introduced over the next several weeks,” said Goldman. Now to wait to see if Facebook’s latest attempt to mitigate this misuse — which sounds a lot like its earlier attempt — is sufficient.

About The Author

Tim Peterson
Tim Peterson, Third Door Media's Social Media Reporter, has been covering the digital marketing industry since 2011. He has reported for Advertising Age, Adweek and Direct Marketing News. A born-and-raised Angeleno who graduated from New York University, he currently lives in Los Angeles. He has broken stories on Snapchat's ad plans, Hulu founding CEO Jason Kilar's attempt to take on YouTube and the assemblage of Amazon's ad-tech stack; analyzed YouTube's programming strategy, Facebook's ad-tech ambitions and ad blocking's rise; and documented digital video's biggest annual event VidCon, BuzzFeed's branded video production process and Snapchat Discover's ad load six months after launch. He has also developed tools to monitor brands' early adoption of live-streaming apps, compare Yahoo's and Google's search designs and examine the NFL's YouTube and Facebook video strategies.