Does Facebook Racially Profile its Users For Advertising Purposes?

By now everyone is used to advertising on Facebook. However, it has recently come to light that the social network provides options to advertisers that allow them to exclude specific groups of people based on “Ethnic Affinities.”

Options are nothing new for advertisers on Facebook. These have been giving advertisers the opportunity to specifically choose what types of users they want to target and what types of content they want to deliver to this targeted group. They can factor, for example, things like musical interests to college alma mater. Roughly two years ago, though, Facebook began allowing advertisers to add “ethnic affinities”—like Asian-American, Hispanic, and African-American—to its advertising preferences.

Facebook had previously defended the advertising tool, saying that the company does not, in fact, categorize its marketing preferences by race. Instead, they say “ethnic affinity” is determined—within the advertising tool—by a completely automated process that characterizes people into specific groups according to their interests and backgroun.

Facebook had originally reported: “What we are referring to in these affinity groups is not their genetic makeup, but their affinity to the cultures they are interested in.”

Or rather, a Facebook representative had, at one time, explained: “They like African-American content. But we cannot and do not say to advertisers that they are ethnically black. Facebook does not have a way for people to self-identify by race or ethnicity on the platform.”

While this explanation makes sense, it could be argued that Facebook might be in violation of federal law because they allow for advertisers to purposely exclude specific “affinities” from receiving specific ads.

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

He goes on to say that the company had originally added this “ethnic affinity” category over the past two years and, more importantly, they assert that the category is not equivalent to racial profiling. For example, he argues that Facebook does not specifically ask users about race. He also says that Facebook has a “multicultural advertising” initiative that is common practice within the industry.

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