Usually, when Facebook is getting in trouble over ads, it’s because they’re making them more obnoxious. But, it turns out, over the last two years they’ve been allowing advertisers to decide which “ethnic affinity” sees which ads.
ProPublica discovered this ability simply by creating an ad for an event and looking under lists of people to exclude. If you’re wondering how Facebook determines your racial identity since they don’t ask, the answer is they determine this based upon declared interests:
[Facebook privacy and public policy manager Steve] 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.
One has to wonder what Likes and posts mark one’s “racial affinity” in the first place. As we’ve seen elsewhere, the very human flaw of racial discrimination can, even unintentionally, seep into computer algorithms. This is especially worrying because Facebook, quite recently, hasn’t always pinpointed what its users actually care about. If the worst is true, users could have been discriminated against for up to two years, which is as far back as Facebook claims the option was available, and be unaware of it.
UPDATE: Facebook has issued a statement to stress that the ad in question was not for housing, as previously believed, but for “an event.” They’ve would also like to add the following:
“We are committed to providing people with quality ad experiences, which includes helping people see messages that are both relevant to the cultural communities they are interested in and have content that reflects or represents their communities — not just generic content that’s targeted to mass audiences. We believe that multicultural advertising should be a tool for empowerment. 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. We take prompt enforcement action when we determine that ads violate our policies.”
(via Pro Publica)