In addition to targeting consumers by location and interests, Facebook also offers advertisers the ability to reach (and exclude) specific ethnic groups. This option has been available for some time now, but gained attention when reported by ProPublica last week.
According to a civil rights attorney consulted by ProPublica, these advertising practices are “horrifying” and “illegal.” Discussing one particular ad relating to Facebook’s housing ad category, the lawyer stated that such practices are in violation of the Federal Fair Housing Act of 1968, which prohibits the publication of notices which include any preference or discrimination based on race, nationality, gender or religion.
Does Facebook, as an ostensibly neutral platform, hold ultimate responsibility for how its advertisers use these options? “We take a strong stand against advertisers misusing our platform,” says Privacy & Public Policy Manager Steve Sattersfield. “Our policies prohibit using our targeting options to discriminate, and they require compliance with the law… We take prompt enforcement action when we determine that ads violate our policies.”
Ethnic targeting options were actually introduced with the intention of aiding multicultural advertising on the platform. Rather than targeting by race, which would be impossible as users are not required to input this information, the options work by analyzing content which has been liked and shared by users, and assigning them an “ethnic affinity.”
While “ethnic affinity” will probably simply be used as a stand-in term for race by some advertisers, that isn’t necessarily a bad thing, says Marketing Land’s Danny Sullivan. After all, there are certain products or services which are more popular within certain demographics, either through demand or necessity; Sullivan cites the example of beauty and grooming products designed especially for the needs of African American consumers. It’s not racist to want to more accurately reach your target consumer.
“Any type of ad targeting can be a powerful tool that can help both businesses and consumers or pose harm, if abused,” says Sullivan. “Don’t stop the capability. Stop the abuses, where they are found.”