Facebook allows housing ads to exclude users by “ethnic affinity,” which is maybe illegal

Over the years, many longtime users of Facebook have concluded that the platform is kind of garbage. A recent investigation by ProPublica finding that housing ads on Facebook are excluding users by race won’t do much to change that, especially since such racial exclusion could be against the law.

Like many other advertising campaigns both online and offline, housing companies who advertise on Facebook use consumer data to target the audiences they think are most likely to use their services. Since there are no race-related categories on Facebook profiles, advertisers can’t directly collect information on racial demographics. However, what they can do is look at users’ “ethnic affinities”: pages, products, music, and so on which are affiliated with certain ethnic or racial groups. It’s basically guessing what racial groups users identify with, and then targeting advertising accordingly. BTW, white users have reported not seeing an ethnic affinity in their settings at all (because whiteness is the default, obviously).

The non-profit journalism organization decided to test this “ethnic affinity” deal by creating a housing ad on Facebook. The ad settings allowed them to exclude whatever ethnic affinities they chose, which in this case were “African American (US),” “Asian American (US),” and “Hispanic (US – Spanish dominant)”.  The problem — besides egregious racism — is that excluding audiences from housing advertisements or public notices is super illegal.

The Fair Housing Act of 1968 prohibits “any notice, statement, or advertisement, with respect to the sale or rental of a dwelling that indicates any preference, limitation, or discrimination based on race, color, religion, sex, handicap, familial status, or national origin.” Short version? No deliberately cutting demographic groups (or “ethnic affinities”) out of the audience for housing ads. In light of the fact that the Fair Housing Act was developed as a response to segregation and unjust treatment of black people in America, Facebook’s scope for excluding users from housing ads based on race is particularly messed up.

Christian Martinez, Facebook’s Head of Multicultural (multicultural what, I do not know), defended the ethnic affinity setting in a public statement, saying: “It’s important to know that there’s also negative exclusion — for example, an apartment building that won’t rent to black people or an employer that only hires men. Our ad policies strictly prohibit this kind of advertising, and it’s against the law. If we learn of advertising on our platform that involves this kind of discrimination, we will take aggressive enforcement action.” Well, the basic mechanics for constructing ads seem to involve exactly this kind of discrimination, and so far the company hasn’t done shit.

Perhaps we shouldn’t be surprised that Facebook has once again eaten it in a spectacular fashion with regard to racial sensitivity. Despite a purported drive to increase diversity, only 2 percent of Facebook employees are black. In July, the company blocked a black activist’s page and suspended his personal account for 30 days because of a post encouraging black people to “embrace your humanity.” Overseas, Germany’s justice minister has suggested Facebook could be criminally liable for its leniency toward posts containing racist hate speech.

No more excuses, Facebook. We’ve heard too many of them and you still haven’t done anything to help minorities. If your advertising parameters even run the risk of contravening a major piece of legislation that’s been in place for almost five decades, it’s time to admit you done fucked up.