Facebook Will No Longer Allow Exclusion of Certain Groups Via Its Ad Targeting Tools

How will it affect legitimate, nondiscriminatory uses of those options?

Facebook had earlier signed a legally binding agreement regarding targeting with Washington state.
Getty Images, Facebook

Facebook signed a legally binding agreement earlier this week with the office of Washington Attorney General Bob Ferguson in which it agreed to ensure that third-party advertisers cannot exclude ethnic and religious minorities, immigrants, LGBTQ individuals and other protected groups from seeing their ads, and to implement those policy changes within 90 days.

However, not all usage of those targeting capabilities is discriminatory in nature. Periscope vice president of media Jen Brady said, “Targeting by race is helpful when reaching dedicated ethnicities, such as with a Hispanic-focused campaign versus a general marketing campaign, or by gender. Being able to reach those audiences effectively is key. There are some advertisers who want to focus on religion.”

One agency executive, who wished to remain anonymous, said, “You can get around any rule. Facebook has a really interesting creative strategy department that can work well with advertising agencies. I don’t think it will limit them. People always find a way around.”

However, another agency executive had a different experience, saying that a Hispanic-focused campaign for a paper towel manufacturer experienced delays due to having to go through an unanticipated review process, and adding, “It would be nice if our Facebook reps would say, ‘Hey, by the way, we know you guys typically do this, so you might want to build this into your timeline.’”

The 20-month investigation by Ferguson’s office was prompted by an October 2016 story in ProPublica, by Julia Angwin and Terry Parris Jr., which found that advertisers could use the social network’s extensive ad targeting capabilities to ensure that people belonging to groups such as those mentioned above would not see their ads, potentially leading to discriminatory situations in sectors such as housing.

Facebook responded in November 2016 with steps including:

  • Building tools directly into its ad-buying software to automatically remove its affinity-marketing tools when marketers buy certain types of ads that “have historically faced discrimination,” such as housing, employment and credit.
  • Moving the ethnic-affinity section in its ad-buying software to its behaviors section from its demographics section.
  • Updating its advertising policies website to make affinity-marketing issues “front and center for all businesses” and making it a bigger part of its education process for businesses and ad partners.

However, a follow-up last November by Angwin, Ariana Tobin and Madeleine Varner of ProPublica revealed that the three reporters were able to buy “dozens of rental housing ads” on Facebook and exclude people such as African Americans, Jews and people interested in wheelchair ramps from seeing those ads, with ProPublica saying, “Every single ad was approved within minutes.”

Facebook then said it would temporarily block advertisers from excluding racial and ethnic groups from seeing ads and conduct an audit of how advertisers used those capabilities.

However, the ongoing investigation by Ferguson’s office found that advertisers were still able to exclude people from seeing their ads based on “several other protected classes,” such as sexual orientation, religious affiliation and veteran status, and public accommodations and insurance were also problematic sectors.

Ferguson’s office provided the following directives to Facebook:

  • In addition to housing, credit and employment ads, Facebook will no longer provide advertisers with options to exclude ethnic groups from advertisements for insurance and public accommodations. Public accommodations include all businesses open to the public. Places of public accommodation range from auto dealers, beauty salons and restaurants to colleges, hospitals and professional sports stadiums.
  • Facebook will no longer provide advertisers with tools to discriminate based on race, creed, color, national origin, veteran or military status, sexual orientation and disability status. These exclusion options will not be present on any advertisement for employment, housing, credit, insurance and/or places of public accommodation.
  • These changes will be permanent and legally binding. The assurance of discontinuance requires Facebook to remove these exclusion options for any advertiser whose ad Washingtonians may have the ability to see. According to Facebook, these changes to its platform will be nationwide.
  • According to the assurance of discontinuance, Facebook will fix its advertising platform to remove the unlawful targeting options within 90 days. The social network service also will pay the Washington State Attorney General’s Office $90,000 in costs and fees.

Agency executives believe there are ways around the new restrictions.

The first anonymous agency executive said brands can turn to lookalike audiences, which are “much more sophisticated and work better in general” than the targeting capabilities affected by this week’s ruling, adding of the latter, “You spend so much more to do that—get super neat with the way you target.”

And Brady said, “Even if you take away those parameters of self-identification, you can still scrub Facebook to find those who might affiliate with one religion over another.”

Ferguson said in a statement, “Facebook’s advertising platform allowed unlawful discrimination on the basis of race, sexual orientation, disability and religion. That’s wrong, illegal, and unfair.”

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