In late October, a ProPublica report uncovered Facebook’s “ethnic affinity” tool, which allowed advertisers to exclude certain groups from seeing their posts. About two weeks later and after much scrutiny for the discriminatory practice, Facebook has announced that it will be making changes to the feature. While the company is taking action to correct its ways, it also begs the question as to why the ability to exclude people was available to begin with.
Advertisers have always been hoping and able to specifically target certain groups of people for their marketing campaigns. However, what was so insidious about Facebook’s tool was the fact that it was specifically blocking people from seeing this certain ad campaigns. Ethnic affinities that popped up for advertisers included included “African American (US),” “Asian American (US),” and Hispanic (US — Spanish dominant.) Categorizing people by their Facebook likes and then keeping them from seeing certain posts, whether it’s something as insignificant as a T-shirt or something vital like housing, is clearly unjust. And that’s what landed the social network in trouble.
On Friday, Facebook’s U.S. Public Policy and Chief Privacy Officer Erin Egan wrote a post titled “Improving Enforcement and Promoting Diversity: Updates to Ethnic Affinity Marketing.” In it, she outlines the changes that are being made. They include disabling the use of ethnic affinity marketing for ads that offer housing, employment, or credit, three things that disenfranchised communities have historically been blocked access to. Facebook is also updating its Advertising Policies to be more specific, hoping that it will educate advertisers and keep from more discriminatory acts from happening.
Egan writes, “We take these issues seriously. Discriminatory advertising has no place on Facebook.” But the thing is, it did have a place on Facebook for while. That is, until ProPublica put the tool on blast.
When Inverse initially covered the marketing strategy, a Facebook spokesperson explained the motive behind it using Spanish ads.
She wrote in an email, “Marketers use this type of targeting to assess whether ads resonate more with certain audiences vs. others. For example, some audiences might click on Spanish-language ads for a World Cup sponsorship vs. other audiences might click more on the same ads in English, so the sponsor 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. We expressly prohibit discrimination and take prompt enforcement action when we determine that ads violate our policies.”
The ethnic affinity tool sounds like it was originally conceived as a way for advertisers to specifically target certain demographics for products that would pertain to them. But it seems to be a feature that could do more harm than good when used with specific bias. If anything, it was a recipe for disaster to begin with. Thankfully, it’s been called out and altered in a meaningful way, but still allowing it for other products showcases the fact that advertisers are looking for any way to make a buck off people’s identities — and Facebook is complicit with that.