Advertisers Can Exclude Facebook Users by ‘Ethnic Affinity’ (Which Means Race)

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A new report from ProPublica highlights just how easy it is for advertisers on Facebook, the largest social network in the world, to avoid show advertisements to specified ethnicities. In some cases, doing so could violate federal fair housing and employment laws.

Among the thousands of boxes that Facebook separates users into is one called “ethnic affinity,” categories of which include “African American,” “Asian American,” and “Hispanic.”

Huh! That sounds like race! Ah, you simpleton. It’s not. Allow Facebook’s privacy and public policy manager, Steve Satterfield, to explain:

Satterfield added that the “Ethnic Affinity” is not the same as race — which Facebook does not ask its members about. Facebook assigns members an “Ethnic Affinity” based on pages and posts they have liked or engaged with on Facebook.

So, if you’re a white person who likes the Facebook page for BET, you might have an African-American ethnic affinity.

When we asked why “Ethnic Affinity” was included in the “Demographics” category of its ad-targeting tool if it’s not a representation of demographics, Facebook responded that it plans to move “Ethnic Affinity” to another section.

Facebook declined to answer questions about why our housing ad excluding minority groups was approved 15 minutes after we placed the order.

Whoops!

The questions raised over Facebook’s ad-targeting are numerous, and they mainly concern how thoroughly Facebook has considered race and race-related legalities when designing their platform. In related news, the Trump campaign is expressly targeting black voters on Facebook with anti-Clinton ads in order to depress voter turnout.

One could argue that filtering by “ethnic affinity” is no different than placing an ad in a Spanish-language newspaper. The difference is that that material is made potentially available to anyone who wants it, whereas targeted ads, as the term should indicate, are not.

Update: Facebook has responded to ProPublica’s report with the following statement.

“We are committed to providing people with quality ad experiences, which includes helping people see messages that are both relevant to the cultural communities they are interested in and have content that reflects or represents their communities – not just generic content that’s targeted to mass 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. We take prompt enforcement action when we determine that ads violate our policies.”