Facebook’s ad-targeting services are so vast and penetrating you can select any group you want to see your ads. Including, as ProPublica’s latest experiment with Facebook’s targeted-ad technology discovered, anti-Semites. ProPublica reporters were able to buy ads targeting “the news feeds of almost 2,300 people who expressed interest in the topics of ‘Jew hater,’ ‘How to burn jews,’ or ‘History of why jews ruin the world.’” The three ads it purchased for $30 were approved in 15 minutes. It should be said that these categories were tiny, at least in Facebook terms. They’re so small, in fact, that Facebook wouldn’t let ProPublica buy ads targeting these audiences alone, so they threw in users interested in the SS, the Nazi Party, the belief that “Hitler did nothing wrong,” and a current German far-right organization. Multiple times during the ad-buying process “Facebook described the ad targeting category ‘Jew hater’ as ‘Antysemityzm,’ the Polish word for anti-Semitism.”
An employee told ProPublica that the worrisome targeting categories were rarely used and a spokesperson said that they have been removed. Still, it’s a continual, growing concern for Facebook. Pushing up against the limits of human ability, Facebook has outsourced more and more of its menial labor to automated programs — algorithms, as they’re more commonly known — that make work at scale easier. But when you’ve got 2 billion users, and your algorithms aren’t equipped with a sense of history and morality, you’re going to end up playing whack-a-mole on a nightmare scale.