Facebook has been criticized for its ad capabilities that determine the reach of ad campaigns based on users' "ethnic affinity."
The social network's sophisticated ads algorithm allows it to include or exclude users from seeing certain material, making campaigns more effective by pinpointing which users are more likely to be interested in a particular product or service. However, Facebook's ad-targeting tool currently includes a "demographics" section that allows advertisers to pick which users can see their ads based on their "ethnic affinity." Facebook began offering this criterion two years ago as part of its multicultural advertising feature.
While the social network doesn't ask its users to identify themselves based on "race," it does determine their "ethnic affinity" based on their activities and interests. Engadget notes that at this year's South by Southwest, a Facebook entertainment executive demonstrated how the company's ad-targeting tool was used to show different trailers of the 2015 movie "Straight Outta Compton" to users based on their perceived ethnic group. According to this Facebook boss, those users who Facebook assigned as "non-multicultural" (i.e. not African-American, not Hispanic, etc.) were shown a version of the trailer in which the characters clashed with police officers and carried guns. Users whose "ethnic affinity" was determined to be African-American were shown a completely different version of the trailer, one that highlighted the historical impact of the film's characters.
On Friday, Oct. 28, ProPublica published a report suggesting that Facebook's preferential advertising based on "ethnic affinity" could be violating the Fair Housing Act of 1968. This federal act makes it illegal to publish or print housing advertisements that indicate preference for or discrimination against people based on their color, race, sex, religion, national origin, familial status or handicap. This is similar to the Civil Rights Act of 1964, which legally forbids the "printing or publication of notices or advertisements indicating prohibited preference, limitation, specification or discrimination" when recruiting workers.
According to ProPublica, when it showed Facebook's "ethnic affinity" exclusion options to the civil rights lawyer John Reiman, he said, "This is horrifying."
"This is massively illegal. This is about as blatant a violation of the federal Fair Housing Act as one can find," he added.
Nonetheless, it is unclear if Facebook's ad-targeting tool is bound by the same laws that legally prohibit the publishing of racially discriminating ads in print publications.
Facebook's head of multicultural Christian Martinez responded to the ProPublica report on Friday in a blog post. According to Martinez, the social network does not determine users' "ethnic affinity" based on ethnicity but on "likes and other activity on Facebook [that] suggest they're interested in content relating to particular ethnic communities - African American, Hispanic American and Asian American."
Facebook was also recently inadvertently linked to a controversy regarding rights to privacy. The social media network was unaware that the location-based analytics app called Geofeedia was allowing police authorities to place a group of protesters under surveillance. Through the app, police can monitor Facebook posts of people in a certain area.