A recent outcry from public, after seeing discriminatory practices from Facebook advertisers, has compelled the social networking website to take action against discriminatory ads that have been excluding certain racial groups such as the African-Americans, Hispanics and Asians from viewing the advertisements.
After a news report revealed Facebook’s negligence of the serious issue, the company’s chief operating officer wrote a letter to the African-American law-making authorities promising to do a better job at protecting the rights of all racial groups in America.
Facebook’s ‘Ethnic Affinity’ Feature Worsens Racial Discrimination
In early 2016, Facebook announced the release of its new feature called ‘ethnic affinity’ that was supposed to help advertisers to target their audience depending on their ethnicity or race. With this feature, most business owners were able to advertise their services to Facebook users who could be identified as African-Americans, Hispanics or Asians.
However, critics accused Facebook of practicing racial discrimination and labeling its users according to their racial identities. The company fought back saying that the algorithms of the ethnic affinity feature were based on how different users engaged with the website and which Facebook pages they followed instead of where they were from. However, the new feature has made it easier for advertisers to practice racial discrimination by hiding content from certain racial groups.
Is Advertising Becoming a ‘Civil Rights’ Issue?
A few months after Facebook released its new feature that made it easy to target specific racial groups, a company named ProPublica used the feature to specifically exclude the Hispanics, African Americans and Asian Americans from their property-related advertisements.
Rental agencies were able to use the feature to ensure that the target audience for their advertisements consisted only of white Americans. The news of such outrageous discriminatory practices caused a public outcry since the system was making it increasingly difficult for African Americans from viewing job or housing related advertisements.
Illegal Advertising Practices?
Civil rights advocates claim that the new Facebook algorithm goes against the American laws such as the Fair Housing Act which states that any discriminatory practices in property advertisements are illegal. Even though the practice of prohibiting certain racial groups from participating in job and house hunts through explicit statements is no longer common in the advertising world, online behavior targeting no longer requires an advertiser to explicitly state that individuals from certain ethnicities must be excluded.
People who have been prevented from seeing job or housing advertisements on Facebook, never find out about these opportunities and hence, they never get the chance to apply. The danger of such technological advances is turning an advertising issue into a civil rights issue, making it even harder to weed out advertisers who are exploiting Facebook’s new feature.
A Temporary Suspension on Discriminatory Advertisements
After reports shone some light on the unfair advertising practices of companies like ProPublica, Facebook has vowed to take the issue more seriously and has temporarily suspended the feature that allows businesses to exclude any ethnic or racial groups from benefiting from their advertising campaigns.
This move came after the failure of Facebook’s public assurance that it was now able to detect any ads that violated the civil laws and block them immediately. Meanwhile, companies like ProPublica were still able to purchase discriminatory ads without the social media company finding out.
The social media giant said that ProPublica’s findings had more to do with Facebook’s technical failure than anything else, and with the company’s recent anti-discrimination policy, advertisers were no longer able to cheat the system without facing serious repercussions.
The company has received backlash from the public for failing to act on the sensitive issue in an effective manner after which it announced that Facebook will be working on integrating machine learning into the website to detect any advertisements that are violating their anti-discrimination policy. Meanwhile, the website’s ‘ethnic affinity’ feature has been turned off completely to prevent advertisers from exploiting it.