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Is Facebook Letting Advertisers Exclude by Race?

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A report on the independent non-profit news website ProPublica, says that social media giant Facebook allows companies to create advertisements that cater to specific ethnicities.

The site purchased an ad for Facebook users who are house hunting. To narrow the audience that can view the ad on their timeline, Facebook asks advertisers to exclude people who match certain “ethnic affinities,” such as African-Americans, Asian-Americans or Hispanics.

When ProPublica selected to exclude the aforementioned “ethnic affinities” its ad was approved within 15 minutes.

But where Facebook gets in trouble is when it comes to jobs and housing there are Federal Laws that strictly prohibit ads that discriminate against people based on their gender, race, disability, and age. In this case, Facebook would be directly violating the Fair Housing Act of 1968, prohibits ads that show a preference based on race or ethnic background. Perpetrators can be fined up to $75,000 for violating the law.

The social network says it has 3 million businesses actively advertising and more than 70 percent of them are companies outside of the United States. A large portion of Facebook’s profits are generated through these ads. And although users can not specify their race or ethnicity on their profile, Facebook states “ethnic affinity” is determined by an algorithm that records their interests and likes. Its ad policy also restricts “content that asserts or implies personal attributes.”

Facebook’s own ad targeting rules say merchants “must not use targeting options to discriminate against, harass, provoke, or disparage users or to engage in predatory advertising practices” and “If you target your ads to custom audiences, you must comply with the applicable terms when creating an audience.”

Christian Martinez, head of Facebook’s multicultural sales clarified the company’s multicultural marketing position on its corporate website.

“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. And a merchant selling hair care products that are designed for Black women can reach people who are most likely to want its products. That merchant also may want to exclude other ethnicities for whom their hair care products are not relevant.”

The tactic, known as “exclusion targeting” in the ad industry is legal and Martinez claims “this kind of communication is positive.”

However, negative inclusion, she goes on to say “for example, an apartment building that won’t rent to Black people or an employer that only hires men” is strictly prohibited on the social media site. “If we learn of advertising on our platform that involves this kind of discrimination, we will take aggressive enforcement action.”

Last year, Facebook was sued by a former employee for sex and race discrimination. The lawsuit was eventually dropped and resolved during a mediation session.