Facebook Accused of Allowing Advertisers to Exclude Based on ‘Ethnic Affinities’

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image via wikipedia.org
image via wikipedia.org

It was in the Jim Crow South where public and private entities were not only allowed to discriminate and exclude based on race, but it was often written into law and social etiquette.

Despite such discrimination seeming like a thing of the past, Facebook’s policies keep it in the present-day.

As many people probably know based on ads they see in their Facebook news feed, the social network allows advertisers to target users by their interests or background. However, it also gives advertisers the ability to exclude specific groups of their choosing, referring to the racial categories as “Ethnic Affinities.” It is important to note that advertisements that exclude people based on race, gender and other personal factors are prohibited by federal law in both housing and employment.

The website Propublica.org thoroughly investigated Facebook’s advertisement policies themselves by buying an ad from Facbook’s advertisement portal. They actively excluded groups of people in ways that are illegal, to see what would happen.

“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,” they write in their investigation.

image screenshot from Facebook ad purchased by Propublica.org
image screenshot from Facebook ad purchased by Propublica.org

They then showed their results to John Relman, a lawyer who is experienced in civil rights cases. According to Propublica, Relman 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.”

Birthed from the ashes of Jim Crow, the Fair Housing Act of 1968 makes it wholly 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.” Those who violate this act, if caught, can face tens of thousands of dollars in fines.

Also made necessary by the dehumanizing horror that was Jim Crow is the Civil Rights Act of 1964, which like the Fair Housing Act, also prohibits the “printing or publication of notices or advertisements indicating prohibited preference, limitation, specification or discrimination,” but specifically in regard to employment.

Facebook claims that its policies forbids advertisers from using “targeting options to discriminate against, harass, provoke, or disparage users or to engage in 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 to Propublica. “We take prompt enforcement action when we determine that ads violate our policies.”

Though according to those policies, the actions Facebook takes is usually just removing the ad, despite the offense being both illegal and worthy of a hefty fine.
Satterfield reportedly continued, saying that exclusion is an important power for advertisers to have. He gave an example, saying, 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.”

Indeed, Facebook’s specific business model is centered around giving advertisers the freedom to target specific groups — and also to exclude specific groups, apparently. They achieve this by accessing and using personal data that they have collected from their users. This very specific targeting, with which Facebook is heavily engaged, is particularly helpful when reaching niche audiences is the goal, an example being midwestern mothers with dogs. ProPublica recently offered a tool allowing curious users to see just how Facebook categorizes them, and found nearly 50,000 differing categories where Facebook separated its users.

Satterfield reportedly insisted that “Ethnic Affinity” is not the same as race, since Facebook allegedly does not ask its members about race. However, apparently Facebook assigns members to a particular “Ethnic Affinity” based on pages and posts they have liked or engaged with on Facebook. He also said that Facebook began using the “Ethnic Affinity” categories in recent years in order to achieve a “multicultural advertising” effort.

Over the course of their investigation, Propublica asked the million dollar question: Why is “Ethnic Affinity” included in the “Demographics” category of its ad-targeting tools if, as Facebook has insisted, it is not actually a representation of demographics? Facebook reportedly responded that it plans to move “Ethnic Affinity” into a different, probably still discriminatory, section.

The advertisement that Propublica bought, which discriminated against Black people and other people of color, was accepted by Facebook within 15 minutes of them ordering it.

Facebook contacted Atlanta Black Star to comment on this article. Aziza Johnson, who works in their PR agency, wrote to underscore Facebook’s stance and policies. “Our policies prohibit discriminatory targeting,” she wrote in an email. “Facebook has strong policies in place that address racial discrimination on our platform. If we determine an ad violates this policy, we’ll take action.”

In regard to the ethnic affinities, like Satterfield, Johnson felt it important to note that “People cannot ethnically identify themselves on Facebook.” Additionally, she rehashed Satterfield’s comments focusing on how the ethnic affinities can be inclusive, rather than how they can be exclusionary, saying, “Facebook gives advertisers the ability to use multicultural advertising to reach people whose likes and other activity on Facebook suggest they’re interested in content relating to particular ethnic communities.”

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