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Facebook Fights Back Against Discriminatory Ad Targeting

Facebook Fights Back Against Discriminatory Ad Targeting Blog Feature

March 25th, 2019 min read

Facebook is taking steps to prevent controversial discriminatory advertising practices, (specifically in housing, employment, and credit ads) by limiting targeting options for these sectors.

Now, any ads for housing, credit cards or loans, or job postings will no longer be able to target based on zip code, age, or gender, and they will have a much smaller set of targeting categories overall.

The action came after several years of lawsuits from various civil rights organizations claiming that Facebook’s ad targeting was intentionally excluding protected classes (i.e. race, ethnicity, sexual orientation, or religion) from seeing the ads.

While Facebook’s ad policy prohibits discriminatory targeting practices, these interest groups, including the National Fair Housing Alliance (NFHA), the American Civil Liberties Union (ACLU), and the Communication Workers of America (CWA, found that more action needs to be taken to protect against abuse.

A Brief History of Facebook’s Ad Discrimination Changes

This is not the first change Facebook has made to prevent discriminatory ad practices on their platform.

Over the past few years, the social media giant has made many small, incremental updates to ensure advertisers are complying with anti-discrimination laws.

To understand how far they’ve come (and how far they still have to go), here’s a breakdown of the actions taken so far across the housing, credit, and employment sectors.

2016

A piece published by ProPublica highlighted how advertisers could use Facebook’s ad targeting options in a discriminatory way.

Specifically, it showed how you could intentionally exclude people from seeing ads based on race, age, gender, or other sensitive factors - all practices that are prohibited by federal housing and employment laws.

In response, Facebook released a statement addressing the concerns and announced changes to lock down its ad targeting options, which included:

  • Disabled the use of the “Multicultural affinity targeting” ad option for housing, employment, and credit sectors.

  • Updated advertising policy to be more explicit regarding discriminatory ad policies.

2017

In the months following the ProPublica piece, many more civil rights organizations filed lawsuits against Facebook for these issues.

These resulted in the platform making additional changes to that enhanced its ability to catch these types of ads, and better educate the advertiser about its policies in relation to federal laws.

These included further updates to its ad policy, which made it even more clear not only that ads can’t be used in a discriminatory way, but called out a list of specific groups protected by anti-discrimination laws.

Additionally, they added new resources to the policy that linked to government agencies and civil rights groups to better educate advertisers about the policies in place.   

Also, they developed an algorithm that would identify potential violations of revised policies.

When the algorithm indicated that an ad was for housing, credit, or employment, it would add in a warning system for potential violators:

  • If the ad attempted to use the multicultural affinity targeting option, it would auto-disapprove the ad.

  • Even if the ad did not use multicultural affinity targeting, but used other audience segmentation, it would show information on Facebook’s updated anti-discrimination policy. It would then require the advertiser to sign a self-certification stating their compliance with the policy and anti-discrimination laws.

2018

The Cambridge Analytica scandal, where a team used hyper-targeting on specific audience subsets to potentially sway voter opinions, forced Facebook to re-evaluate their targeting options for the third time.  

While this event wasn’t fueled by discriminatory advertising practices, it did bring additional vulnerabilities in Facebook’s targeting platform to light - and showed how dangerous these tools could be in the wrong hands.

In response, Facebook removed 5,000 targeting options off of their ad platform such as  including or excluding many protected classes.

They also required all advertisers to submit the compliance certification they enforced for housing, credit, and employment in the previous year.

The certification included Facebook’s full policy, along with the specific laws in place for the three sectors.

It required all advertisers to complete before they could begin to run ads again.

Facebook’s Latest Changes

Phew, now, back to the news at hand.

This week, Facebook settled five lawsuits for the discriminatory ad claims.

As mentioned above, advertisements for housing, credit, or employment will not be able to target based on zip code, age, or gender, along with several other detailed targeting limitations.

Also included in the settlement, Facebook is in the works of creating a new tool that will allow users to search and view all housing ads in the U.S., regardless of those ads are targeted to you in the ad platform.

In the announcement, Facebook COO Sheryl Sandberg stated:

“Housing, employment and credit ads are crucial to helping people buy new homes, start great careers, and gain access to credit. They should never be used to exclude or harm people. Getting this right is deeply important to me and all of us at Facebook because inclusivity is a core value for our company.”

Additionally, the parties that filed the lawsuits and complains will continue to work will Facebook over the next three years to monitor the changes and their effects, while also looking out for other potential flags in Facebook’s algorithm.

A Long Road Ahead

The use and impact of PPC advertising has grown so dramatically over the last few years, lawmakers really are only now catching up to ensure existing policies are enforced.

While Facebook still has a long way to go, the strides they’ve made (and will make in the future) sets a standard for the responsibility social media platforms (and marketers) have in enforcing and compliance of civil rights laws.

In the past, lawsuits regarding discriminatory advertising practices were geared toward the advertiser, not the platform displaying the ads.

This unprecedented turn suggests lawmakers are recognizing the power social advertising platforms have and will face more liability as a result.

This will likely lead to other top social platforms making changes to their own targeting options (whether self-directed or by court order) to comply with these same standards.

I’m sure we can expect to see Facebook make further efforts in preventing discrimination and introducing more inclusive ad measures in the near future, and many other platforms will likely follow suit.

If you’re advertising on Facebook, be diligent in ensuring that your strategies do not against these new regulations and policies. While Facebook itself is taking the brunt of the responsibility right now, these discriminatory practices may still result in legal repercussions and can reflect very poorly on your brand.

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