Outrage du jour. Facebook lets advertisers exclude users by race!

Despite all of the legitimate things you may be running across and getting upset about during this time of year, there remain plenty of silly stories which seem to get the Social Justice Warriors’ collective knickers in a knot. I saw another of these on Twitter and in several blogs this week when it was “revealed” that Facebook is run by a bunch of racists. How do we know? Because they allow advertisers to… gasp… target their advertising to users based on a variety of demographic profiles, including some which relate directly to race. (Arstechnica)

Imagine if, during the Jim Crow era, a newspaper offered advertisers the option of placing ads only in copies that went to white readers.

That’s basically what Facebook is doing nowadays.

The ubiquitous social network not only allows advertisers to target users by their interests or background, it also gives advertisers the ability to exclude specific groups it calls “Ethnic Affinities.” Ads that exclude people based on race, gender and other sensitive factors are prohibited by federal law in housing and employment.

That certainly sounds pretty horrible when you phrase it that way, but the very specific (and for now hypothetical) example which the authors, Julia Angwin and Terry Parris Jr. are delving into has nothing to do with Facebook and everything to do with potential advertisers. They took out an ad to sell a house and found that they could target their pitch to users who describe themselves as “likely to move” and also classify themselves with the tags Buying a House, First time buyer or House hunting. Makes sense to me so far. If I’m selling a home that’s certainly the group I’d be willing to pay to advertise to. But they then went on to explore the “Narrow Audience” choices and found that they could either include or exclude users based on racial identity.

“Horrifying!” and “massively illegal” is how one civil rights lawyer described it for their article. But is it? Nobody forced the fictional seller to open the “Narrow Audience” tab when crafting the ad. At best you could say that the Facebook format leaves room for someone to use the tools with racist intent, but it’s obviously not built in as a feature. That’s not Facebook being racist… it’s the person who chose to intentionally exclude minorities from seeing their ad.

Still, people have been raising concerns over this alleged “racism” before this discovery turned up. Last winter users realized that the distributors of the movie Straight Outta Compton were using targeted marketing to serve up different trailers for the movie to black and white users. They weren’t trying to stop anyone from seeing their movie (which would be about the most criminally stupid marketing plan in history). They were trying to hit specific audiences with the style of advertising most likely to put posteriors in seats in the movie theater.

If we find services being offered exclusively to one demographic group or another by the government we’ve got a huge problem. Uncle Sam has to serve everyone and should be essentially colorblind, particularly when talking about services which everyone is entitled to. (That’s one reason I frequently wonder why we still bother collecting race data on the census.) But we’re not talking about the government here, nor are we dealing with essential services or “rights.” This is Facebook. And we’re talking about having advertisements shoved in your face. Do you really feel deprived by seeing fewer of them?

I certainly hope you’re not sitting there thinking this only applies to skin color. What will you do when you find out that advertisers of Geritol and Centrum Silver exclusively target their advertisements to senior citizens? Isn’t that ageism? And sellers of Gefilte fish try to focus their ads heavily toward Jewish users. There’s got to be something antisemitic going on there, eh?

As to the racial aspect of the question, what you’re seeing is – again – targeted marketing. It’s not designed to “exclude” anyone, but rather to focus in on the segment of the market which is mostly likely to purchase the wares being offered by the advertiser. They want the biggest bang for their buck in that regard. That fact that this goes on has never been a secret. There have even been marketing tutorials speaking directly to to how to do this on Facebook. (See number 8 on this list… “Target Ethnic Affinities”.) And it’s not as if Facebook is trying to hide this. You can go learn about “Exclusion Marketing” right in their tutorials.

Facebook has a lot of problems, particularly when it comes to their political bias in favor of liberals. But this is an empty well. You haven’t discovered a secret hideout of the KKK online. This is a hugely complex marketing tool which allows sellers to target the market they want to reach. Sorry to disillusion you, but that’s about all there is to it.