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Facebook Advertising Tools Spark Racial Profiling Fears

3 minutes to read

Imagine if a newspaper offered advertisers the option of only placing certain ads  in copies that went to white readers.

That’s basically what Facebook is doing nowadays, according to a report from non-profit news organisation ProPublica.

One of Facebook’s most appealing traits to advertisers is its ability to target users by giving marketers several options. Marketing teams can specify who sees their ads, narrowing in on Facebook users depending on their locations, preferences and interests.

However, one of these categories the social media giant offers to advertisers is the ability to exclude specific groups based on race, gender and other sensitive factors it calls “Ethnic Affinities”. In allowing advertisers to target specific groups, this business model excludes specific groups, a tactic known as exclusion marketing.

Here is a screenshot of an ad ProPublica purchased in Facebook’s housing categories via the companies advertising portal:

Facebook says its policies prohibit advertisers from using the targeting options for discrimination, harassment, disparagement or predatory advertising practices. The social media giant has further has defended the tool as:

“An opportunity to serve highly relevant ad content to affinity-based audiences.”

Giving advertisers the choice to target a portion of the population has its legal limits however, and is prohibited by federal law in housing and employment.

Advertisements that exclude people based on race and gender can violate the federal government’s Fair Housing Act of 1968, which prohibits ads for housing and employment to exclude anyone based on race, gender, and other identities.

Whilst it’s not a problem to target specific ethnic demographics for consumer products and services based on their need, putting, “We don’t rent to black people” in your Craigslist ad is discriminatory (unless that wasn’t clear to you already).


By hiding rentals or sales from certain ethnic demographics, they’re less likely to see the ads, and you’re less likely to have these residents. Thus you create racial segregation through discriminatory advertising practices.

Any type of advertisement targeting can be a powerful tool that can help both businesses and consumers. These targeted Facebook ads to people in realms such as housing and employment, however, are illegal as they can so easily be abused. This isn’t about targeting ads based on interest or demographic. This is about giving everybody – regardless of race or ethnic affinity – equal access to housing and employment. It’s about equality.