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Facebook Profiling: Its System Lets Advertisers Exclude Black, Hispanic, and Other “Ethnic Affinities” From Seeing Ads

| October 31, 2016

facebook advertisers profiling

Color blunt. (Charis Tsevis)

Imagine if, during the Jim Crow era, a newspaper offered advertisers the option of placing ads only in copies that went to white readers.

That’s basically what Facebook is doing nowadays.

The ubiquitous social network not only allows advertisers to target users by their interests or background, it also gives advertisers the ability to exclude specific groups it calls “Ethnic Affinities.” Ads that exclude people based on race, gender and other sensitive factors are prohibited by federal law in housing and employment.

Here is a screenshot of an ad we purchased in Facebook’s housing categories via the company’s advertising portal:

facebook advertisers profiling

The ad we purchased was targeted to Facebook members who were house hunting and excluded anyone with an “affinity” for African-American, Asian-American or Hispanic people. (Here’s the ad itself.)

When we showed Facebook’s racial exclusion options to a prominent civil rights lawyer John Relman, he gasped and said, “This is horrifying. 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 of 1968 makes it illegal “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.” Violators can face tens of thousands of dollars in fines.

The Civil Rights Act of 1964 also prohibits the “printing or publication of notices or advertisements indicating prohibited preference, limitation, specification or discrimination” in employment recruitment.

Facebook’s business model is based on allowing advertisers to target specific groups — or, apparently to exclude specific groups — using huge reams of personal data the company has collected about its users. Facebook’s microtargeting is particularly helpful for advertisers looking to reach niche audiences, such as swing-state voters concerned about climate change. ProPublica recently offered a tool allowing users to see how Facebook is categorizing them. We found nearly 50,000 unique categories in which Facebook places its users.

Facebook says 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 options to discriminate, and they require compliance with the law,” said Steve Satterfield, privacy and public policy manager at Facebook. “We take prompt enforcement action when we determine that ads violate our policies.”

Satterfield said it’s important for advertisers to have the ability to both include and exclude groups as they test how their marketing performs. For instance, he said, 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.”

He said Facebook began offering the “Ethnic Affinity” categories within the past two years as part of a “multicultural advertising” effort.

Satterfield added that the “Ethnic Affinity” is not the same as race — which Facebook does not ask its members about. Facebook assigns members an “Ethnic Affinity” based on pages and posts they have liked or engaged with on Facebook.

When we asked why “Ethnic Affinity” was included in the “Demographics” category of its ad-targeting tool if it’s not a representation of demographics, Facebook responded that it plans to move “Ethnic Affinity” to another section.

Facebook declined to answer questions about why our housing-categories ad excluding minority groups was approved 15 minutes after we placed the order.

By comparison, consider the advertising controls that the New York Times has put in place to prevent discriminatory housing ads. After the newspaper was successfully sued under the Fair Housing Act in 1989, it agreed to review ads for potentially discriminatory content before accepting them for publication.

Steph Jespersen, the Times’ director of advertising acceptability, said that the company’s staff runs automated programs to make sure that ads that contain discriminatory phrases such as “whites only” and “no kids” are rejected.

The Times’ automated program also highlights ads that contain potentially discriminatory code words such as “near churches” or “close to a country club.” Humans then review those ads before they can be approved.

Jespersen said the Times also rejects housing ads that contain photographs of too many white people. The people in the ads must represent the diversity of the population of New York, and if they don’t, he says he will call up the advertiser and ask them to submit an ad with a more diverse lineup of models.

But, Jespersen said, these days most advertisers know not to submit discriminatory ads: “I haven’t seen an ad with ‘whites only’ for a long time.”

–Julia Angwin and Terry Parris Jr., ProPublica

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13 Responses for “Facebook Profiling: Its System Lets Advertisers Exclude Black, Hispanic, and Other “Ethnic Affinities” From Seeing Ads”

  1. The Geode says:

    In my opinion, FACEBOOK is a private business and owes NOTHING to the public and should be able to do what any private business can do. Stores can refuse customers why can’t FACEBOOK do the same? Besides, I always see people complaining about FACEBOOK but NOBODY deletes their profiles and stop using it.

  2. Donald Trump's Tiny Fingers says:

    Oh hey now, that’s not good.

  3. RP says:

    As far as housing goes, I totally understand why something like that should be illegal. It should not be legal to exclude races for certain things like housing, medical care etc or anything considered necessary to live a happy healthy life. But from an advertising standpoint, I would have no problem with excluding races from targeted advertising on other, non-critical things. Hear me out.

    I’m caucasian, my wife is Asian. Let’s say my wife is on Facebook and a targeted ad pops up for a rice cooker. Let’s say I’m also on Facebook at the same time and that ad does not appear for me because I am not asian. Am I upset that I was excluded from that targeted ad? Of course not, it makes total sense this particular advertiser’s target consumer group is Asian, that’s not racist, it’s not insensitive, it’s true. So if an advertiser has to pay X amount of dollars to reach a finite number of potential buyers for their product, wouldn’t it make sense to select a group of people who are more likely to buy your product and exclude groups of people who are less likely to buy your product?

    At the end of the day as far as housing or other necessities goes, yeah that some nonsense, but other things…yeah, I have no problem with that. People have thin skin these days. Targeted or excluding advertising isn’t an all out attack on races in America. I can totally see why the need for something like this advertising system came about and it does work great, it could just use some tweaking.

  4. DaveT says:

    The world got enough problems than some privately owned company ( facebook) allowing paid advertisers to do (include or exclude) what they want. People need to grow up. If it offends people, don’t be a member of facebook or delete or update your profile to exclude profile details.

  5. Fraudisreal says:

    Facebook is deeply rooted in the ministry of truth, the FBI reopening didn’t trend on social media so it was blocked on all of them to keep voters uninformed about the criminality of huma and Clinton to suppress democracy , why does anything surprise anyone. Delete your accounts and use ad blocker software!!

  6. Jon Hardison says:

    I’ve seen this issue coming up a lot this week. I’ve explained, over and over, that this isn’t about exclusion. It’s about refining messages to a specific audience. People of different backgrounds, whether economic, racial, social, etc. have very difference expectations, concerns, sensibilities and needs, so being able to get specific messaging to specific people of specific backgrounds not only increases the efficacy of all versions of an ad, but it’s also the only mechanism advertisers have to budget and refine their campaigns.

    In most of the examples provided in the articles I’ve seen complaining about the inclusion of race in Facebook’s targeting options they’ve used Real Estate. It’s a great way to enflame people and have them jump to all kind of conclusions about the purpose of this ability, but if you really want to have fun lets pretend for a moment that this simple, useful and very much needed option wasn’t available:

    I’m a company that sells hair products made for black people. Facebook doesn’t give me the option of targeting by race so I’ve got to figure out another way to target this audience so I’m not spending oodles of cash putting my ad before people that have no chance of purchasing it. How do I do it? (Here’s where the real racism comes in)

    Well, Facebook has a great list of interests we can filter people by.
    So I’ll start by filtering by Rap Music, not that all black people and ONLY black people like rap, but I’ve got to use the tools I have. How about people who like rap music AND fried chicken? Watermelon? Hair braiding?

    As in RP’s example above, if this option didn’t exist people would be asked to spend their advertising dollars by creating what could ONLY be viewed as a racist caricature of a people who would generally take no issue with the fact that a product was being marketed to them in a specific way because they’re Black.

    I’ve even had people insinuate that marketing this way is basically illegal. Really? Is it? Of course it isn’t!
    Chrysler markets their cars to everyone in very specific ways. Do white men get pissed when they hear the Dodge Pickup ad with the country voice over? Do Black people get angry when they see a 300 full of Black people driving slow through the city with an obviously back voice aired on the WB during explicitly Black programming? I’ll admit I do get uncomfortable when Disney does an all (or mostly) Black animated film. It always strikes me as tacit acceptance of the inevitability of segregation but that’s another issue.

    The point is that the only thing wrong with this feature isn’t that the feature exists but what its need says about our society. Again, that’s a different conversation, but Facebook’s feature is the same as any other’s. If you want a campaign to work you need to know who you’re talking to and how you’re talking to them. It’s that simple.

  7. Florida Gator says:

    Facebook can do whatever they want to do as can their advertisers…. If you don’t Facebook and it’s policies,don’t use it.

  8. Obama 2016 says:

    Sorry but this just target marketing.

    Some ads work better for some groups then others.

    McDonald’s runs different ads on Spanish and African American themed shows and stations than they do for larger audiences like the Super Bowl.

  9. Donald Trump's Tiny Fingers says:

    Yeah, the housing thing is a major issue and might violate the fair housing act.

  10. Concerned Citizen says:

    To be fair I have a love/hate relationship with Facebook. I use it to primarily keep in touch with family and friends scattered all over the country. I can go weeks without checking and mostly use messenger to chat.

    Facebook is not the only company to use Demographic targeting. I recently paid a bill online with Verizon and made a purchase on Amazon. I was sent a survey in which they asked several questions with the aim of improving the site. Several of those questions were age and race.

    I scratched my head in puzzlement wondering what on earth being a middle aged Caucasian male had to do with paying a bill and spending a little money on computer accessories. I answered and went about my day as usual.

    We now live in a society where just about everyone is offended by something. I now see a trend of media outlets using their platform to attack and bash what they don’t agree with.

    The solution is quite simple. If something offends you then remove yourself from it and stop using it. I bet you won’t though as most of the features Facebook offer are free.

    In my opinion media outlets should be used on more serious topics than someone pouting over an ad and presenting a one sided story. Have you contacted Facebook and let them explain how it works? I bet not. And if so would you do a follow up?

    This is just my opinion of course and the write of the story is welcome to disagree.

    I’m also pretty sure that “Demographic Targeting” can affect everyone. Not just whoever we consider a minority at the time.


  11. footballen says:

    How do I get on one of those lists? Is there a group they avoid all together? I will take that one.

  12. Logcanoe says:

    No shirt, no shoes, no service is about all the business refusal your allowed to make. Join the 21st century, please.

  13. Anonymous says:

    Face book is evil!

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