Here's How Facebook Could Let Advertisers Racially Discriminate

October 29th 2016

Danielle DeCourcey

People find jobs and apartments online all the time, sometimes even using Facebook to do it. But what if you couldn't see some of those opportunities because of your "ethnic affinity"?

A ProPublica investigation by Julia Angwin and Terry Parris Jr. found that Facebook gives advertisers the ability to choose the "ethnic affinities" they want to exclude. This means that the "ethnic affinities" that are excluded won't see the advertisements. The journalists actually went through the process of buying an ad. According to a screenshot from ProPublica, the feature includes a list of races and ethnicities to exclude from being targeted by an ad.

ProPublica took a screenshot of the "ethnic affinity" option.

In the ad that ProPublica journalists made, which was placed in the Facebook housing category, they excluded users with an ethnic affinity for African-Americans, Asians, or Hispanic Americans.

ProPublica ad on Facebook.


The ProPublica ad is specifically excluding people with an "affinity" for minority groups. Facebook assigns "affinity" based on pages that users like, or posts they engage with, ProPublica explains. (Facebook does not ask users for their race.)

In theory, Facebook makes it possible for advertisers to exclude "ethnic affinities" so that advertisers can test their marketing strategies. And according to USA Today, this might be a somewhat standard industry practice:

"Multicultural ad targeting is not illegal and, in fact, is pretty common in the industry. It can help marketers reach demographics most interested in certain products or services, said Joseph Turow, a professor who researches Internet marketing at the University of Pennsylvania's Annenberg School for Communication.

"'But it's really tough to find bad actors, especially when you are allowing millions of people to buy their own ads on Facebook,' Turow said."

However, the ProPublica report raises the fear that advertisers could hide ads for housing or employment from users based on guesses about their race or ethnicity.

The 1964 Civil Rights Act says that it's illegal to "print or publish or cause to be printed or published any notice or advertisement relating to employment" that discriminates based on race. The Fair Housing Act protects minorities from discrimination in the advertising of housing opportunities.

ProPublica showed the ethnic affinities feature to John Relman a civil rights attorney and he said it was illegal. “This is horrifying. This is massively illegal. This is about as blatant a violation of the federal Fair Housing Act as one can find," Relman told ProPublica.

A law professor from the University of Missouri who spoke to USA Today also noted possible legal problems. "There's a part of the Fair Housing Act that makes it illegal to have discriminatory advertising," Rigel Oliveri explained to USA Today. "That part applies to both the person taking out the ad and also the publisher of that ad."

"It's not just hosting the ad," Oliveri said of Facebook. "It's encouraging and providing the advertisers with the ability to exclude people based on their race and ethnicity."

Facebook said that "ethnic affinity" is not the same as race. It also said that its policies include a strong stance against discrimination, according to ProPublica:

"'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,' said Steve Satterfield, privacy and public policy manager at Facebook. 'We take prompt enforcement action when we determine that ads violate our policies.'"

Facebooks head of multicultural, Christian Martinez also responded yesterday in a blogpost.

Facebook ads.

Housing in the U.S. has historically been the focus of racial discrimination.

Legal segregation before 1954, forced black Americans to live in contained neighborhoods and restricted them largely to the rental market. Urban renewal projects displaced black and Latino renters in the city and made it even more difficult for blacks and Latinos, to find housing, according to PBS. After legal segregation ended other policies like redlining, and refusing to give black people loans for homes, forced them to stay in black neighborhoods and kept many out of the real estate market.

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