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Facebook ad tool discriminates

When you log onto Facebook, the advertisements displayed on the right side of the browser are impossible to miss. Facebook, currently the third most trafficked website in the world, obviously attracts a multitude of people and businesses hoping to promote their products and companies. However, a recent report from ProPublica – an independent, nonprofit newsroom – reveals that Facebook uses an advertising tool that may be allowing people and companies to discriminate against certain ethnicities through their advertisements.

Placing an advertisement on Facebook is easy enough. Above every existing ad, there is a link to “create your own ad.” As advertisers proceed through the steps of submitting an ad they eventually arrive at a tab labeled “Audience,” which then allows them to determine whom they would like to see their ad. They can target audiences based on gender, location, age and demographic. Within the demographic category, advertisers can limit which users will see their advertisement by indicating ranges of socioeconomic status, levels of education, political affiliations and “ethnic affinities.”

Only the users who fall into these specifications will have access to the advertisement on Facebook. The ethnic affinities available for exclusion include African-American, Asian-American and Hispanic. Among these demographics, advertisers can choose to include some and exclude others. However, because there is no white or European ethnic affinity available, the only people who can be excluded are people of color. This feature is particularly problematic as people of color can be excluded from opportunities in housing, credit and employment – all integral factors to achieving economic stability.

Head of Multicultural Sales at Facebook, Christian Martinez defends this feature by addressing how most other advertising tools in traditional media have directed ads toward the white majority. As an alternative to this practice, Facebook gives advertisers the ability to market products and services that directly pertain to specific groups of people by allowing them to select those audiences specifically.

Martinez said that through this advertising tool, “a merchant selling hair care products that are designed for black women can reach people who are most likely to want its products. That merchant also may want to exclude other ethnicities for whom their hair care products are not relevant.”

Martinez goes on to explain that Facebook’s ad policies strictly prohibit discriminatory advertising and that if they learn of advertising that involves discrimination, they will take direct action in response. As an additional safety measure, ads go through a screening process using both computer algorithms and human screeners before they are approved.

To test this screening process for potential discrimination, ProPublica created an ad for an event that would help people search for apartments. ProPublica excluded African-American, Asian-American and Hispanic people from the ethnic affinity category. Facebook approved ProPublica’s ad within 15 minutes. If an ad that was this blatantly discriminatory was approved within 15 minutes, there are obviously systematic flaws.

Facebook may have nothing but good intentions for their advertising tool, as they use a system that allows advertisers to reach more specific audiences. But leaving room for potential discrimination on such a popular forum for communication and networking negates the positive intentions behind the ad mechanism. Facebook, a company that prides itself on its inclusivity, cannot perpetuate racism and discrimination with their practices. The current state of their advertising system makes discrimination not only possible, but profitable.

America has a dark history of employment, credit and housing discrimination. It is naïve to assume that this sort of discrimination doesn’t exist anymore. Giving employers and landlords the opportunity to continue this sort of practice empowers them and gives the impression that it is okay to do so. Facebook needs to take a closer look at its advertising practices and consider the variety of effects – both good and bad – which may result.

Peder Ericson ’19 ( is from St. Paul, Minn. He majors in English with a concentration in education.