An article by ProPublica published last month reported that advertisers could use Facebook targeting to exclude certain races, or what the company calls “ethnic affinities,” from housing and employment ads, potentially putting the social network in violation of the Fair Housing Act of 1968 and the Civil Rights Act of 1964.
The article prompted scrutiny from civil rights groups and policy makers, including the American Civil Liberties Union and four members of Congress, and a class-action lawsuit.
The decision casts a perhaps unwelcome spotlight on what Facebook calls its “ethnic affinity marketing solution,” which is still available for use outside the areas of housing, employment and credit advertising.
One of Facebook’s main draws for marketers is how narrowly it lets them target messages to its users. Ads can be sent to people based not only on standard demographics like age, gender and location, but also on a bevy of other factors, like whether they have an anniversary coming, their interest in horseback riding, whether they use Gmail or Hotmail, and the languages they speak. Users can also be excluded from seeing ads based on this data.
While much of this information is provided voluntarily by users, ethnic affinity is one demographic offered to marketers that users cannot choose, but it is instead assigned based on their interests and activities on Facebook. That includes page likes, group memberships and friendships, the company said. You can list your religious views and languages on your Facebook profile, but you cannot self-identify as, say, Asian-American.
On Facebook’s ad-buying website, however, advertisers can choose to include or exclude certain demographic “affinities” from ads in the United States. For instance, they can exclude African-American, Asian-American and four “types” of Hispanic — bilingual, English-dominant, Spanish-dominant or all of the above. Facebook lists the number of people who match those affinities within its ads tool.
For example, if an advertiser wants to reach Americans ages 18 and up on Facebook, the company indicates that there are 26 million people with the “ethnic affinity” of African-American. The company confirmed that because the assignment is based on activity, a white person could be targeted as African-American and vice versa.
Facebook users can visit their Ad Preferences and see what, if any, ethnic affinity is assigned to them under their “lifestyle and culture” interests, and remove it if they want, the company said. A reporter for The New York Times who is Indian-American did not have “Asian-American” listed under her interests in that section. A colleague, who is Hispanic and speaks primarily English, had “Ethnic affinity: African-American (U.S.)” listed under descriptions like “away from family” and “books.”
ProPublica, for its article last month, bought an ad targeting Facebook users who were house hunting, and excluded people with an “affinity” for African-American, Asian-American or Hispanic people. The publication showed the ad to a civil rights lawyer, who called it a “blatant” violation of the Fair Housing Act.
On Friday, Facebook declined to disclose the number of housing, credit and employment ads placed using ethnic affinity targeting. The company brought in roughly $18 billion in revenue last year, almost all of it from advertising.
In her blog post, Ms. Egan wrote that this type of targeting “gives brands a way to reach multicultural audiences with more relevant advertising.” In addition to tools that will disable ethnic affinity marketing for housing, employment or credit ads, Facebook will “require advertisers to affirm that they will not engage in discriminatory advertising” on the site and offer them information so they “understand their obligations with respect to housing, employment and credit.”
Amy Spitalnick, a spokeswoman for the New York State attorney general, said its civil rights bureau “inquired about Facebook’s practices and, while we are still reviewing them, we are pleased to see this positive step by the company.”
Yvette D. Clarke, one of the members of Congress who called on Facebook to change its ad policy, commended the decision and took the opportunity to rap Silicon Valley’s knuckles for its lack of racial and gender diversity.
“To avoid these problems in the future, I urge Facebook and other technology companies to address the lack of diversity in the ranks of their leadership and staff by recruiting and retaining people of color and women,” Ms. Clarke said in a statement.
This is hardly the first time Facebook has received intense scrutiny over its ad-targeting practices. In 2013, Facebook paid $20 million to settle a class-action lawsuit against the company for sharing data with advertisers about users’ “likes” without asking permission. The same year, a lawsuit accused the company of scanning users’ private messages on the network and using the information for advertising purposes. In September of this year, a federal judge in California ruled against a bid to certify the case as a class-action lawsuit.
The changes to Facebook’s ethnic marketing tool will very likely deal a difficult blow to the company’s longstanding boasts about its superior ad-targeting capabilities, especially in the face of competitors like Google, Twitter and Snapchat. Shares of Facebook closed down 1.5 percent on Friday.
Facebook also faces criticism for the role it may have played in the election of Donald J. Trump, with critics assailing the amount of “fake news” that showed up in users’ news feeds. The company came under fire this year for faults in its Trending Topics feature, which surfaced some of the most talked-about stories and topics circulating on Facebook. Users discovered that Trending Topics, among many other areas of the site, was a source for the spread of fake news from disreputable websites. Separately on Friday, the company accidentally placed notices on the profile pages of many users indicating that they were dead.