For me, tracking Facebook’s discriminatory ads has been a bit of a personal journey. In 2015, when I was working at ProPublica, investigative data journalist Surya Mattu (who is now at The Markup) came to me with an interesting tidbit: He had figured out how to collect all the advertising categories that Facebook put him in.
Playing around with the data, Surya and another colleague, Terry Parris Jr., noticed that they were both assigned to the category “African American ethnic affinity”—even though neither of them is Black. We wondered how many others were assigned to incorrect categories—so Surya built a tool that let people see how Facebook had categorized them.
After we released the tool in 2016, civil rights attorney Rachel Goodman called me and described how Facebook’s racial categories were more problematic than I had envisioned. They could be used to violate federal antidiscrimination laws, she said. So Terry and I decided to test it out: We bought a housing ad on Facebook targeted to be shown only to White people and, shockingly, Facebook approved it.
The Fair Housing Act prohibits discrimination in housing ads. But Facebook told us they considered it to be up to advertisers to comply with the law when placing their ads on the platform.
A year later, I wondered if Facebook had fixed the problem. So my ProPublica colleagues Ariana Tobin, Maddy Varner (who is now at The Markup), and I bought some more discriminatory housing ads—ones that excluded people Facebook categorized as African Americans, mothers, Spanish speakers, etc. And—oops!—the ads were approved.
“This was a failure in our enforcement and we’re disappointed that we fell short of our commitments,” Ami Vora, vice president of product management at Facebook at the time, said then. She promised the company would do better.
But the settlement still allowed other types of advertising to target people based on “multicultural affinity.” And Jeremy’s reporting seems to indicate that some ads—like the employment one he found—could still slip through Facebook’s system.
“This is a small step in ensuring an equitable internet, free
of potential discrimination,” Lavi wrote.
I’m proud that my current and former colleagues have also played a part in removing discriminatory advertising from the internet.
In a world where news articles are often consigned to the dustbin of history hours after they are written, we think that staying on a story and being persistent is one of the most important moves we can make.
As always, thanks for reading.
P.S. Want to learn more about the U.S. antitrust investigations into big tech? Tune in next Thursday at 12 noon ET, when I will be interviewing Barry Lynn, Executive Director of The Open Markets Institute. You can sign up for a reminder and send questions for the Q&A portion to [email protected]