Facebook Pushes Back Against Report of Housing Ads Targeted by Race

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ProPublica bought an ad on Facebook and excluded certain groups from seeing it.
ProPublica bought an ad on Facebook and excluded certain groups from seeing it. Credit: Courtesy of Facebook
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Facebook is not about to apologize for enabling ad targeting based on racial or cultural attributes. Far from it, the whole point of Facebook's advertising technology is to make it possible to direct different messages to different groups.

"That's the purpose of this business," said Christian Martinez, Facebook's multicultural head, whose job is to help brands create ads for all kinds of groups and target them effectively.

Facebook on Friday found itself pushing back against a ProPublica report that journalists there were able to buy ad ad in the housing category that excluded minorities from seeing it.

ProPublica had used Facebook's self-serve ad platform to create a sponsored post and set targeting parameters to avoid groups with certain ethnic affinities.

Facebook doesn't offer direct targeting by race, but marketers can identify groups with "affinities," meaning that people have demonstrated an interest in a certain culture or group.

Advertisers can steer ads toward people aligned with those ethnicities or set posts to exclude them. ProPublica excluded African Americans, Asians and Hispanics to show how they might be discriminated against in housing ads, which would be illegal on the part of the marketer and something ad platforms are supposed to police.

Facebook questioned the validity of the story, saying ProPublica didn't create a housing ad, but an "event" listing asking people to attend a forum at a Brooklyn library regarding high rents.

"This ad made it through because it wasn't actually a housing ad," Mr. Martinez said.

It is illegal to exclude races in housing and employment opportunities. Facebook does have filters and other measures that look for problematic ads, said Mr. Martinez, who wrote a blog post explaining the company's affinity group targeting.

ProPublica reporter Julia Angwin said the organization was trying to abide by internal ethics standards by not placing a phony Facebook ad, and instead advertised an actual event for the group, which was still related to housing rights. "Our code of conduct states that it is unethical for us to misrepresent ourselves in any way during an investigation," she said in an email. "So we did not buy an ad advertising a house to rent or a mortgage."

Still, ProPublica planned to update the story, more accurately characterizing the type of ad that was bought.

Mr. Martinez said there was good reason for the ability to exclude certain ethnicities in marketing campaigns, to avoid duplication. On Facebook, marketers from most major brands build ads with sometimes dozens of spots for targeted groups.

Facebook also said this type of targeting occurs on every other digital platform, and even in traditional media, where ads have always been placed based on the audience of a particular magazine or TV show.

As for the ad industry, most marketers are pressing for more personalized ads, not less.

"All major advertisers use this type of targeting," said one agency exec, speaking on condition of anonymity. "We use it to serve up very specific creative, and it's usually in the context of a larger campaign."