Facebook allegedly letting advertisers exclude users by ethnicity

Facebook is reportedly allowing its advertisers to exclude users based on their ethnicity while posting their ads.

The news comes after ProPublica, a non-profit investigative journalism group reported on what it has tested on the system that it said, not only allows advertisers to target users by their interests or background, but also shows an option to exclude a specific group called "Ethnic Affinity.” Races listed under the "Ethnic Affinity” group include African Americans, Asian Americans and Hispanic people.

To make the case clearer, ProPublica also took a screenshot of the dummy ad it purchased on Facebook’s housing categories via its advertising portal.

According to the report, the allegation is opposed to what the social media giant has always preached - that it allows advertisers to target specific group of users based on information provided by Facebook users.

ProPublica also went on to compare the case with the Fair Housing Act of 1968 which 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.”

Steve Satterfield, privacy and public policy manager at Facebook told ProPublica that Facebook started to offer the “Ethnic Affinity” categories within the past two years as part of a “multicultural advertising” effort. He added that the “Ethnic Affinity” is not the same as race and the assignment of a person into this category is based on pages and posts liked or engaged with on Facebook.

Furthermore, he added it's a common practice and essential for advertisers to have the ability to both include and exclude some ethic groups while testing how their marketing performs. For example, an advertiser can test the performance of a campaign in English that excludes the Hispanic group and compare against one that runs in Spanish.

In response to the allegation, Facebook’s spokesman shared with A+M that it wants to provide people with quality ad experiences. This 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," it added.

Christian Martinez, Facebook’s head of multicultural said, advertising should empower the audience to learn about things that are relevant to and speak to them and its community.

“Living in the US, most of the advertising that I see in traditional media is targeted to people in the majority — people who don’t look like me, who don’t speak Spanish, and who may not share my experience. The experience of ads constantly reminding you that you’re different from the majority is incredibly marginalising, and it’s not right," she said.

To address this problem, she said most of the leading companies in the online ad space offer multicultural advertising options. Hence, Martinez said Facebook gives advertisers the ability to reach people whose likes and other activity on Facebook suggest they’re interested in content relating to certain ethnic communities — African American, Hispanic American and Asian American.

Advertisers may also focus on reaching any group directly. For instant, a merchant selling hair care products that are designed for black women can reach people who are most likely to want its products.

“That merchant also may want to exclude other ethnicities for whom their hair care products are not relevant — this is a process known in the ad industry as 'exclusion targeting'. This prevents audiences for community-specific ads from seeing a generic ad targeted to a large group and helps avoid the offensive outcome that traditional advertising can often create for people in the minority,” Martinez said, adding that anyone can use Facebook’s ad preferences and choose to continue receiving the same ads or not.

For Martinez, this sort advertising method is positive, and reflects an advertiser’s respect for the diverse communities it is trying to reach.

We want Facebook to be a platform that’s respectful and empowering, and that enables people to see ads and other content that respect the diversity of our global community — especially the portions of that community that have been historically underrepresented. To do this, we can’t pretend that diversity doesn’t exist, or ask diverse communities to resign themselves to seeing only ads whose very existence calls them out as different.

Instead, she said, there is a need to enable everyone to see the content that’s most relevant to them — and work to encourage everyone to “embrace, not suppress, the diversity that makes our community great.”

Meanwhile, ProPublica said it recently offered a tool allowing users to see how Facebook is categorising them and found nearly 50,000 unique categories in which Facebook places its users.