Facebook Lets Advertisers Exclude Users by Race


Pro Publica:

Facebook Lets Advertisers Exclude Users by Race

Imagine if, during the Jim Crow era, a newspaper offered advertisers the option of placing ads only in copies that went to white readers. That’s basically what Facebook is doing nowadays.
The ubiquitous social network not only allows advertisers to target users by their interests or background, it also gives advertisers the ability to exclude specific groups it calls “Ethnic Affinities.” Ads that exclude people based on race, gender and other sensitive factors are prohibited by federal law in housing and employment.
Here is a screenshot of a housing ad that we purchased from Facebook’s self-service advertising portal:
The ad we purchased was targeted to Facebook members who were house hunting and excluded anyone with an “affinity” for African-American, Asian-American or Hispanic people. (Here’s the ad itself.)
When we showed Facebook’s racial exclusion options to a prominent civil rights lawyer John Relman, he gasped and said, “This is horrifying. This is massively illegal. This is about as blatant a violation of the federal Fair Housing Act as one can find.”

The Fair Housing Act of 1968 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.” Violators can face tens of thousands of dollars in fines.
The Civil Rights Act of 1964 also prohibits the “printing or publication of notices or advertisements indicating prohibited preference, limitation, specification or discrimination” in employment recruitment.
Facebook’s business model is based on allowing advertisers to target specific groups — or, apparently to exclude specific groups — using huge reams of personal data the company has collected about its users. Facebook’s microtargeting is particularly helpful for advertisers looking to reach niche audiences, such as swing-state voters concerned about climate change. ProPublica recently offered a tool allowing users to see how Facebook is categorizing them. We found nearly 50,000 unique categories in which Facebook places its users.

Facebook says its policies prohibit advertisers from using the targeting options for discrimination, harassment, disparagement or predatory advertising practices.
“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."
Satterfield said it’s important for advertisers to have the ability to both include and exclude groups as they test how their marketing performs. For instance, he said, an advertiser “might run one campaign in English that excludes the Hispanic affinity group to see how well the campaign performs against running that ad campaign in Spanish. This is a common practice in the industry.”
He said Facebook began offering the “Ethnic Affinity” categories within the past two years as part of a “multicultural advertising” effort.




The great advantage of internet advertising is that it allows ads to be targeted to specific groups rather than to the general public. Would it be illegal for a Catholic publisher to advertise a Catholic book and target it specifically to Catholics, excluding all other religious affiliations? Would it be illegal for a political ad which is trying to get out the Catholic vote or the Evangelical vote or the Black vote, to target an ad only to Catholics, Evangelicals, or Blacks?


No. Just ads regarding housing and employment.


This makes no sense to me from a marketing standpoint unless somehow the more “affinities” you add to the targeted audience causes the cost to go up. If, say, you are advertising for a product that virtually nobody but black people buy, would it make any sense to target whites for that product if it cost more to add them?

If it doesn’t cost more, then I don’t know why anybody would do this.


Suppose a builder of $1M+ homes wants to target only residents of a single zip code, rather than everybody. Would that be legal?


How in the world in this time in America can this happen? :mad:


I wonder if Facebook would be OK with a bakery wanting to target wedding cake ads to only heterosexuals?


Nothing wrong with targeting ads, but this story is about deliberately excluding people by ethnicity which has been illegal as far as housing since long before the internet was dreamed of.


That’s true, but I’m thinking that targeting methods online necessarily include excluding groups that are not targeted. So a yacht seller might target only high income buyers. He’d probably exclude my whole state, among others. And a publisher of a Spanish language magazine might want to target only Hispanics. To do that, he’d exclude other ethnic groups. A publisher of missals might want to target just Catholics, and exclude everybody else.


Would a gun shop put an ad in a hoity-toity San Francisco left-wing political rag?

Advertising is about targeting the audience that will buy your goods or services.


Hispanics may be any race (including White, Asian, Black, American Indian, and mixed race). I just find it an odd comparison. Anyway, I am White and American Indian (racially) and am glad that I no longer have a Facebook.


Advertising methods that allow targeting one race/ethnicity or another also, by definition, are going to allow excluding one race/ethnicity or another. You cannot have one without the other.


There might be things about this we don’t understand. For example, does it cost more to have ads that reach a less narrowly targeted audience?


Advertising is all about targeting. Back when dinosaurs roamed the… before the internet, you could (and still can) buy mailing lists that target certain demographics, households by income, religious affiliations, and racial and religious groups. That means you, without ill intent, exclude groups that are most likely to not be interested in your product or message.

In some ways, partly due to its size, and lack of focus, the internet has made people less informed. Demographics is all about breaking people down into groups based on hundreds of categories. I saw a page from an advertising trade magazine from the 1950s that had zero racist connotations. It listed all the black radio stations in the country and simply said, “If you want to reach the negro population with your product, radio is less expensive and more targeted.” It gave no impression of being for or against negroes. It was all about selling products to a certain audience and saving money in doing so.

I used to read the print edition of Advertising Age, a highly respected trade publication. It’s only available online now. Which would be worth checking out if you really want to understand matching your product or message with the right audience.



Facebook’s algorithms are capable of much more than targeted advertising. When Facebook applies the same ‘targeted feeds’ to news stories as they do advertising, it leads to people only receiving news stories that they agree with.

When a Facebook users scrolls over something quickly, it indicates disinterest. If a user stops on a news story, it indicates interest; and the user will receive more of the same, leading to a narrow view that is continually reinforced.


It doesn’t. You can reach a broader audience or one that’s more specific but the cost is the same.


The Facebook ad site is kind of vague as to how they charge, but it looks to me as if there are several things that determine the cost. For instance, you can choose to be priced for a particular period of time. But it seems your charges are also determined by the number of people you reach. If the latter is true even in part, a person might well want to limit the number of people receiving the ad. And he would want to target the people most likely to buy the product or whatever the person is selling.

If pricing doesn’t enter into it at all, then there is no reason on earth why any advertiser would not want the maximum number of people to be reached, no matter what.

I still think there is something missing in this story.


Probably. The issue is whether they are trying to exclude people based on a protected class. If they were trying to advertise to a specific location because of a high/low population of a particular race or religious group or something like that, there may be an issue, but it would be difficult to prove.


I don’t know about how Facebook advertising works. But I suppose that any easy solution to prevent discriminating against protected classes would be not to allow those categorizations.

But Facebook is all about categorization. They allow numerous gender identity designations. And advertisers can apparently test just which targeting boundaries work best and which ones don’t.

In past times, mailing lists were sold. If someone bought a mailing list of a magazine directed mainly to African Americans, or Catholics, or Jews, that’s who was being targeted. If he bought a mailing list from Fortune magazine, would he be discriminating against the poor or middle class? Obviously yes because he was looking for high end buyers.

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