Facebook announced today that it would temporarily stop letting advertisers xclude users from seeing their ads based on race and ethnic group. The highly controversial (and legally dubious) practice was first uncovered during an investigation by Pro Publica in 2016. Though Facebook said it would end the practice when it came to ads for housing, credit or employment following the subsequent backlash, a Pro Publica report from just last week found that housing ads could still exclude black, Jewish and disabled users.
In a statement last week, Facebook said it put “safeguards” in place following the original report, but because of a “technical glitch” the practice continued:
This was a failure in our enforcement and we’re disappointed that we fell short of our commitments. Earlier this year, we added additional safeguards to protect against the abuse of our multicultural affinity tools to facilitate discrimination in housing, credit and employment. The rental housing ads purchased by ProPublica should have but did not trigger the extra review and certifications we put in place due to a technical failure.
In their landmark 2016 report, Pro Publica found that, although Facebook never explicitly asks anyone their race, users were assigned an “ethnic affinity” based on their behaviour. When choosing which group they want to see their ads, advertisers could choose to exclude groups of users if they fell into, for example, African American or Latino groups. Notably, there is not a White/Caucasian category, thus white users were generally not excluded via this practice. (A handful of white users report once being labelled as “African American”. Users can’t change their affinity.)
While Facebook said it is ending such exclusions for all ads, the move appears to be temporary. In a 12-page letter to the chairman of the Congressional Black Caucus (CBC) made public today, Facebook COO Sheryl Sandberg announced the company will disable the option to exclude affinity groups “until we can better ensure that our tools will not be used inappropriately”. Last year, CBC lawmakers explored legal action against the company, arguing Facebook was violating both the Civil Rights Act and the Fair Housing Act, which prohibits landlords and employers from using race to determine housing.
In both the CBC letter and its explanation last year, Facebook emphasised that targeted advertising can be useful – an advocacy group planning a fundraiser for Latinx people, for example, may want to focus on Spanish-speaking users. It isn’t easy to separate that from the landlord who wants all-white tenants in their building, but Facebook introduced this targeting option and its up to the company to find some way to solve the problem.
This latest snafu comes only weeks after Facebook COO Sheryl Sandberg sat down with the CBC to apologise for Facebook’s role in Russia’s disinformation campaign during last year’s US election. Russian agents bought ads on Facebook featuring Black Lives Matter slogans and incendiary images of black women holding guns, seemingly using fear of armed black people to provoke conservative-leaning users. Sandberg personally apologised to members of the CBC, promising to, at a later date, add its first black member to Facebook’s board.
And that apology came only four weeks after Sandberg spoke out when a separate Pro Publica investigation found that Facebook temporarily permitted advertisers to target users self-described as “Jew haters”. Facebook would go on to say it was simply an algorithmic flaw, but, given the timing of these snowballing racist controversies, it seems a public apology is less indicative of coming substantive change and more of a speed bump on the way to the company’s next hidden horror.