Wednesday, May 22 2019

Do Facebook's Ads Discriminate?

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Facebook made headlines in recent years for how advertisers could control who saw their ads. The use of “Ethnic Affinities” essentially allowed companies to avoid targeting users who fell into certain racial categories, effectively providing a mechanism for discrimination. The tech giant was even targeted by the US Department of Housing and Urban Development (HUD) for violating the Fair Housing Act by providing ad targeting mechanisms that allowed companies to prevent minorities from seeing the housing-related ads.

While the feature was slated for removal in 2018, a recently released research paper shows that ad targeting in Facebook could still be discriminatory, even if the advertiser was trying to get their ads displayed to a wide audience.

What Researches Discovered

In order to conduct the study, researchers spent $8,500 on housing ads on Facebook. They set the target to be “highly inclusive,” attempting to get the ads displayed to individuals representing a wide range of races and genders.

One set of ads, showing homes that were either available for rent or sale in North Carolina, featured identical parameters. However, the for-sale homes were shown to an audience that was 75 percent white. The rental ads were displayed to a broader mix of users.

When researchers created near-identical ads for homes – the only difference being that one features a white family while the other featured a black family – the ad featuring the white family was displayed to an audience that was 85 percent white. The version with the black family hit an audience was 73 percent white. Both ads were targeted using the exact same parameters.

Ads that featured content that is “stereotypically of most interest to black users (e.g., hip hop) were “delivered to over 85% black users. Country music ads were shown to more than 80 percent white users, regardless of the fact that the ads had the same targeting.


What the Study May Mean

If the information the researchers uncovered is an accurate representation of how Facebook’s ad targeting works, it suggests that companies may not be able to reach a wide audience equally, even if that is their intention and they set the parameters accordingly. While Facebook recently stated that they would take additional steps to limit ad targeting capabilities, it isn’t clear if that will be enough to avoid digital advertising discrimination.

There may be little that advertisers can do to reach a broader audience through Facebook, if the study’s results represent a typical experience and any upcoming Facebook ad targeting changes don’t achieve the desired result. While ad delivery optimization does rely partially on a user’s activities and preferences – identifying categories of interest and using those details to determine what ads may be relevant to them – the ability to use the information to discriminate, even if that outcome is unintentional, may be an issue for months or years to come.


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