Facebook removes advertising tools following racism claims

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Facebook has deactivated tools that once allowed advertisers to prevent certain racial and ethnic groups from seeing credit, employment or housing advertisements on the site.

This move was spurred by the recent widespread criticism of the practice, especially by the Congressional Black Caucus.

Facebook began to permit “ethnic affinity” advertisements several years ago in an effort to help advertisers target specific racial or ethnic groups. The social media platform accumulates an immense amount of information from its 1.8 billion users, giving it the chance to categorize them by demographic. From that information, marketers have the chance to easily choose how they want to broadcast their ideas to the people they want to influence.

Facebook disabled tools that allowed advertisers to prevent certain racial and ethnic groups from seeing select advertisements. Photo by: Agata Poniatowski

Facebook’s algorithm for shaping its users’ News Feed recently came under intense scrutiny. ProPublica, a non-profit news institution, revealed that advertisers were able to place advertisements for things like housing that excluded African-Americans, Asian-Americans and Hispanics, in what could be a violation of federal housing and civil rights laws that were created in the 1960s. This coverage caught the attention of several Facebook users who filed a lawsuit against the corporation, citing that the advertising practice violated the Fair Housing Act and the Civil Rights Act.

Citing a violation of the Fair Housing Act, the Congressional Black Caucus sent Facebook a letter on Nov. 1 asking for the issue to be addressed and the advertising feature to be disabled. The caucus voiced its concerns about advertisers abusing features of Facebook’s affinity market segment and proposed ideas on how the company could sustain its attempt to curb discrimination, which particularly hurts groups that have historically faced intolerance.

On Nov. 11, Facebook affirmed through a press release that “discriminatory advertising has no place on Facebook.” The company sought to resolve the issue through meetings with the Congressional Black Caucus, the Congressional Hispanic Caucus, New York State Attorney General Eric Schneiderman, U.S. Republican Linda Sanchez of California and U.S. Republican Robin Kelly of Illinois.

Through its press release, Facebook announced that it will construct devices to uncover discrimination, as well as offer more information to advertisers to avoid discriminating against certain groups. It will also stop allowing the use of ethnic affinity marketing for advertisements that reflect on credit, employment or housing.

“There are many non-discriminatory uses of our ethnic affinity solution in these areas, but we have decided that we can best guard against discrimination by suspending these types of ads,” Erin Egan, Facebook’s chief privacy officer, expressed in the press release.

Facebook’s next objective is to unearth methods on how its ethnic affinity marketing can be used to encourage inclusion for inadequately represented groups of people. The company will improve its advertising policies, making them even more detailed and requiring advertisers to declare that they will not partake in discriminatory advertising. Facebook will also supply information in order to educate advertisers on their responsibility when it comes to credit, employment or housing marketing.

This change in marketing practices was aided through Facebook’s conversations with the American Civil Liberties Union, the Brookings Institution, the Center for Democracy and Technology, the Leadership Conference on Civil and Human Rights, the NAACP Legal Defense Fund, the National Fair Housing Alliance and Upturn. Facebook further disclosed in its press release that it is continuing to work with policymakers and is welcoming further suggestions on how to eliminate discrimination.

However, the advertising practice is still allowed by Facebook in contexts other than credit, employment or housing, leading many to be skeptical about Facebook’s efforts. An instance of ethnic affinity marketing that reaches into the realm of entertainment is Universal Studio’s marketing of the film Straight Outta Compton. White and African-Americans users on Facebook were targeted by different advertisements, with publication Ars Technica reporting that the advertisement directed toward whites made the film’s protagonists seem like gangsters.

Meanwhile, advertisements that targeted African-Americans concentrated on the history and personalities of the artists, creating a massive divide in the marketing for the film.

Facebook has additionally been reprimanded in recent months for how it tracks content, which encompasses misleading political articles, nudity and propaganda.

The surprising victory of Donald Trump in the presidential election has triggered speculation over how many voters were influenced by inaccurate news shared on Facebook, mostly in approval of Trump. Facebook has been blamed by some in aiding Trump in his win by taking minimal action to restrict the expansion of unreliable news sources.