After four years of scandals over targeting users by race — including a white users only option — Facebook has very quietly removed the racial targeting option for advertisements.
After years and years of Facebook advertising scandals, they all tend to blend in together, and it’s easy to forget the Facebook racial ad targeting originally uncovered back in 2016. That’s when the website ProPublica published their blockbuster investigative report “Facebook Lets Advertisers Exclude Users by Race,” exposing a pretty disgusting ad option that allowed advertisers to block a housing advertisement from showing up in African American, Asian, or Hispanic users’ feeds.
In follow-up reporting at The Markup, journalist Julie Angwin wrote that “A year later, I wondered if Facebook had fixed the problem,” and “I bought some more discriminatory housing ads—ones that excluded people Facebook categorized as African Americans, mothers, Spanish speakers, etc. And—oops!—the ads were approved.”
Thank you for the shoutout!— Julia Angwin (@JuliaAngwin) August 31, 2020
It is kind of amazing that it took four years of reporting on illegal discrimination in Facebook ads for this change to finally take place.
And of course, there are still tons of ways to discriminate by zip code, proxy variables etc.
That practice appears to have finally ended, though Facebook ended it very quietly. In a post from three weeks ago that no one really noticed, a marketing arm called Facebook for Business sort-of announced they would scrub racial ad targeting, euphemistically calling the removal "efforts to simplify and streamline our targeting options." The blog post said that the company was "removing multicultural affinity segments and encouraging advertisers to use other targeting options such as language or culture." (Though as The Markup notes, “multicultural affinities” is “a renamed version of Facebook’s ‘ethnic affinities.’”)
Apparently Facebook did bow to pressure from continued dogged reporting, and one Facebook employee spoke up in far less euphemistic terms about the removal of racial profiling options.
finally get to brag about something i'm proud of working on.— kian lavi (@kianlavi) August 12, 2020
for the past 3.5 years, @hewsuper and i have advocated for the removal of so-called "multicultural affinity" targeting options within facebook ads. they're finally gone. https://t.co/DzJg8v2WzU
“We worked on the targeting team within facebook ads for exactly three years, and fought for this decision almost every single day,” Facebook product designer Kian Lavi tweeted on August 12, in the thread seen above. “This is a small step in ensuring an equitable internet, free of potential discrimination.”
Of course, it wasn’t just pressure from journalists and reporters that prompted the change. As Wired explained last year, the Trump administration’s Department of Housing and Urban Development sued Facebook over housing discrimination because of the policy. When even the Trump administration is suing you over racial bias in housing, you know it must be bad!
That lawsuit remain unsettled, but as we saw with last year’s record $5 billion fine over mishandling data, there is really no consequence capable of doing harm to the all-powerful financial juggernaut of Facebook profits.
Image: Dove Facebook ad, 2017