Facebook approved an ad violating the Civil Rights Act of 1964 in 15 minutes

Unlike newspapers, Facebook can decide who gets to see an advertisement.
Unlike newspapers, Facebook can decide who gets to see an advertisement.
Image: Reuters/Shailesh Andrade
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The world’s largest social network is being accused of pandering to racist advertising.

An investigation into Facebook’s advertising branch by the New York-based non-profit news organization ProPublica found that advertisers can not only filter target audiences by interests or background, but they can also choose to exclude certain “ethnic affinities” when publishing their listings. To demonstrate this, ProPublica itself purchased an ad for an event related to housing on the site. In the online ad placement form, the reporter excluded anyone with an “affinity” for African-American, Asian-American or Hispanic people. Their ad was approved within 15 minutes.

A civil rights lawyer that ProPublica contacted said that exclusion of specific races in a housing-related ad was “as blatant a violation of the federal Fair Housing Act as one can find,” referring to a 1968 law that deems it unlawful to ”make, print, or publish” an ad that ”indicates any preference, limitation, or discrimination based on race, color, religion, sex, handicap, familial status, or national origin.” Fines for breaking this law can run up to $100,000. Listing ads for employment where advertisers are “indicating prohibited preference, limitation, specification or discrimination” also violates the the Civil Rights Act of 1964.

Facebook responded to ProPublica that the “ethnic affinity” category, which has been offered for two years, is not a euphemism for race—instead, affinities are determined by pages users like and interact with on the platform. But if it’s not derived from race, why does the category reside under the “demographics” section? ProPublica asked that question, and Facebook replied that it plans to move the category to another section.

The social media giant’s ad policy mandates that advertisers refrain from using the targeting options to discriminate against users. It said that giving advertisers the freedom to include and exclude groups was solely to test different campaigns. “All major brands have strategies to speak to different audiences with culturally relevant creative,” Facebook told Quartz.  For instance, ads for specific hair products may resonate with African-Americans only or companies may want to target the Hispanic community with ads for Spanish beer.

 It’s also used to run campaigns in different languages for different audiences.

“We believe that multicultural advertising should be a tool for empowerment. 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,” a Facebook spokesperson told Quartz. The company puts in automatic checks to prevent discriminatory ads, and if something slips through the cracks, human reviewers work to rectify it. Facebook also noted that ProPublica’s ad was for an event related to housing, not a direct housing listing.

The wildly popular social networking site has been struggling with its flow of content on several fronts. Employees were irked when CEO Mark Zuckerburg allowed Donald Trump’s posts to stay on the site despite accusations that they are hate speech. The site’s trending algorithms sometimes allow fake news in. And Facebook users have complained about unnecessary censoring of their posts—including the takedown of the historically-significant ‘Napalm Girl’ photo and censoring of female breasts in ads promoting mammograms.

ProPublica’s report comes shortly after the Trump campaign was accused of using targeted Facebook posts ads to discourage black voters from voting Democrat.