HOUSTON (TX) - A ProPublica article recently accused Facebook of violating the Fair Housing Act by allowing advertisers to not only target using user data, but explicitly exclude users from seeing an ad based on demographics and what is called "ethnic affinities."
FOX26 reached out to Facebook, who says the ethnic affinities are based on a users interests or the Pages they like. Facebook maintains they do not have information on a user's race. They said the exclusion tool exists so marketers can test different ads with various groups to optimize their advertising.
In a Facebook Newsroom post by Christian Martinez, Facebook's Head of Multicultural, Martinez explains that Facebook, "gives advertisers the ability to use multicultural advertising 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."
The article also states that users can not ethnically identify themselves on Facebook, suggesting a marketer can not truly target by ethnicity.
"I would be extremely cautious of using anything that excludes anyone from any kind of advertising or marketing," says Sam Ferreri, who works in the highly regulated world of real estate.
The Fair Housing Act makes it illegal to advertise based on things like ethnicity, sex, or even family status. In a test of the Facebook advertising platform, FOX26 was easily able to set gender and age parameters. Family status restrictions were possible by excluding audiences based on relationship status.
Ferreri, who is President of Remax Top Realty in Houston, says digital advertising has, "been a challenge specifically with Facebook or Instagram or any social media accounts because they aren't geared to help us as realtors comply with our state real estate commission requirements."
While the platform may allow exclusion, which some may argue as being discriminatory, Ferreri says he does not know any realtors who would knowingly discriminate; their license, reputation, and livelihood are all too much to risk.
But even if realtors know better than to create ads that violate the rules and laws, would Facebook be responsible in a case where someone did create a discriminatory ad?
FOX26's legal expert Chris Tritico says the Fair Housing Act hasn't clearly caught up with the digital age, but that, "it's drafting and it's spirit indicates that when it does, Facebook could well be held responsible for allowing ads that limit advertising around racial groupings or profiles."
In their statement, Facebook said, "we are committed to providing people with quality ad experiences, which includes helping people see messages that are both relevant to the cultural communities they are interested in and have content that reflects or represents their communities -- not just generic content that's targeted to mass audiences. We believe that multicultural advertising should be a tool for empowerment. 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."
An employee at Facebook explained to FOX26 that discriminatory ads are detected through a combination of algorithmic and manual review.
Users can make edits to their ad preferences to opt out of certain interest categories. Demographics like age and location can be altered by a user editing their "about" page.
Starting Friday, Facebook was running a full-screen pop up on their own platform explaining their advertising platform to users.