Facebook's self-service advertising portal allows companies to exclude users based on their race, gender, and other factors that federal law protects against discrimination, according to a new report from ProPublica.
Reporters from ProPublica bought an ad that targeted Facebook users who were looking for houses. One of the drop-down menus offered an option to exclude people based on "Ethnic Affinities."
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Facebook has integrated the "Ethnic Affinity" category over the past few years to expand on its multicultural advertising efforts.
John Relman, a civil rights lawyer, told ProPublica that he was "horrified" by Facebook's targeting and said it violated federal housing laws.
"This is horrifying. This is massively illegal. This is about as blatant a violation of the federal Fair Housing Act as one can find," Relman said.
Facebook has allowed advertisers to target or exclude specific groups based on data that it has collected on users. This often helps advertisers reach niche audiences–for example, young, professional women in swing states.
ProPublica found that there are over 50,000 unique categories in which Facebook users can be placed.
Facebook's privacy and public policy manager, Steve Satterfield, told ProPublica that the social media giant takes prompt action against ads that they determine violate their policies.
"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," Satterfield said.
He added that exclusion from ads is a common practice in the industry and said an advertiser "might run one campaign in English that excludes the Hispanic affinity group to see how well the campaign performs against running that ad campaign in Spanish."
Satterfield was adamant that "Ethnic Affinity" is not the same as race but is based on pages and posts that users have engaged with.