Facebook Explains Why It Allows Advertisers to Exclude Viewers Based on ‘Ethnic Affinities’

By Erik Oster 

UPDATE: After this post ran, Facebook’s PR firm reached out to clarify that the ad in question was promoting a ProPublica event about affordable housing rather than housing itself.

Here is the image Facebook sent to us:ProPublicaAd

Christian Martinez, head of multicultural operations at Facebook, also responded to the initial ProPublica story in a post. Here are some key quotes:


Facebook gives advertisers the ability to reach people whose “likes” and other activity on Facebook suggest they’re interested in content relating to particular ethnic communities — African American, Hispanic American, and Asian American.

Advertisers may also focus on reaching any group directly: For example, a nonprofit that’s hosting a career fair for the Hispanic community can use Facebook ads to reach people who have an interest in that community.

That merchant also may want to exclude other ethnicities for whom their hair care products are not relevant – this is a process known in the ad industry as “exclusion targeting.” This prevents audiences for community-specific ads from seeing a generic ad targeted to a large group and helps avoid the offensive outcome that traditional advertising can often create for people in the minority.

…it’s important to know that there’s also negative exclusion — for example, an apartment building that won’t rent to black people or an employer that only hires men. Our ad policies strictly prohibit this kind of advertising, and it’s against the law.

In short, Facebook claims that the possible violations noted by ProPublica are not applicable because the ad in question was for an event focusing on housing — therefore the ethnic exclusion option was not discriminatory and did not relate to the Fair Housing Act. ProPublica has not yet updated its initial story.


Facebook allows advertisers to exclude “ethnic affinities” from seeing ads placed on the social network, ProPublica reports.

Ads excluding individuals based on factors such as race, religion and gender violate federal laws in housing and employment, including The Fair Housing Act of 1968 and The Civil Rights Act of 1964. Yet ProPublica was able to purchase a housing ad from Facebook’s advertising portal which excludes the “ethnic affinities” of African-Americans, Asian-Americans and Hispanics. The publication claims Facebook approved the ad 15 minutes after they placed the order.
When showed the ad, civil rights attorney John Relman called it “about as blatant a violation of the federal Fair Housing Act as one can find.”

“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,” Steve Satterfield, privacy and public policy manager at Facebook told ProPublica. “We take prompt enforcement action when we determine that ads violate our policies.”

Sattersfield added that Facebook added the “ethnic affinity” categories within the past two years and that it is not equivalent to race. Facebook does not ask its users about race, but assigns them an “ethnic affinity” based on factors such as what posts and pages they have liked or engaged with.

Sattersfiled also claimed that the category was added as part of a “multicultural advertising” initiative. Excluding “ethnic affinity” categories, he argued, allows advertisers to “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,” adding, “This is a common practice in the industry.”

Image: ProPublica