The social media behemoth has been in all sorts of trouble over the last few months, from flagging iconic war images as ‘inappropriate’ to allowing Trump’s campaign to discourage black Americans from voting through targeted ads.

This has led to revelations about others abusing Facebook’s advertising tools, with a ProPublica article kicking off a debate about whether the ability to target ads by race is moral or even legal. So we thought we’d dust off the old TMB Smackdown format, and have our digital content executive Esther Kezia Harding take on our news editor Chris Sutcliffe in a discussion of whether Facebook’s ‘ethnic affinity’ ad targeting goes too far. Let us know who you think wins – or whether we all lose – in the comments below.

First, in the No corner, Esther:

No

Facebook are a very easy target for bad press. As the biggest advertising platform in the world, they have often made mistakes that have landed them in hot water. But our tendency to villainise the ‘big bad corporation’ clouds the main problem in this particular debate. Quite simply, the issue is not with the platform, it’s with the advertisers using that platform.

A quick and necessary clarification first of all. Housing adverts excluding certain ethnic groups is not only illegal, but morally wrong. I do not in any way condone the way these advertisers have behaved.

Ethnicity is a highly emotive topic, and it can be difficult to look at it in a sensitive and balanced way. For the moment, let’s take a look at gender – another profiling option offered by Facebook’s ad targeting.

It’s generally acceptable to target clothing, hair stylists and makeup at women. It’s also acceptable to target suits and shoes at men. Gender stereotyping aside, this is an industry standard to reach the people most likely to buy your product. Magazines have been doing it for decades – you’d be hard-pushed to see an advert for lipstick in GQ.

Social media has made the ability to target adverts so much more powerful. Adverts in my Facebook feed are more relevant to me than anything I see elsewhere, because it has enough data to put together a powerful profile on me. My favourite Star Wars Christmas jumper has come as a result of it.

Where gender targeting crosses a line both legally and ethically is when a job is advertised and targeted to just men. That’s not okay by anyone’s standards. But should Facebook remove those tools? Of course not – it’s the advertiser who should use the ad targeting in a responsible manner.

The same applies to ethnicity. An advert for an Afro hairdresser or a hijab clothing store simply isn’t relevant to me, and Facebook should offer advertisers the choice to not waste their precious funds and leave me out of it. I actually got an advert for an Abaya Tailor at the weekend (perhaps Facebook have been messing around with the settings) – the first time in a while I’ve had something completely and utterly irrelevant targeted to me.

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As with gender, excluding by ethnic affiliation walks a very, very fine line between targeted and discriminatory advertising. There’s no question that it has been crossed in many of the high-profile news stories over the last few weeks. But this does not make Facebook or its employees racist.

Facebook’s Head of Multicultural, Christian Martinez has written an eloquent piece on their blog defending their multicultural advertising options, and it is essential reading for anyone wanting to humanise their reasons.

Martinez believes that targeting by ethnic affiliation “reflects an advertiser’s respect for the diverse communities it is trying to reach. But it’s important to know that there’s also negative exclusion,” he warns.

“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.”

“We also realize that, as a website, we often aren’t in a position to know the details of an apartment rental or job application — and so we will also remove an ad from our platform if the government agency responsible for enforcing discrimination laws tells us that the ad reflects illegal discrimination.”

We have powerful tools at our disposal to do good, or evil. Like everything on the internet, if we choose to be an asshole and use those tools for illegal advertising practice, the law will fall down on us. It’s time to stop passing the buck back to big, bad Facebook.


In the Yes corner – Chris Sutcliffe:

Yes

To what extent is an invention’s creator responsible for its misuse? Famously, upon the successful detonation of the Trinity nuclear test, American physicist Kenneth Bainbridge remarked “Now we are all sons of bitches”, aware that the work which he had enabled had the potential for misuse with dramatic consequences.

Speaking of drama, comparing Facebook’s ad capabilities to thermonuclear weaponry is overkill. But since Bainbridge had the moral fortitude to take responsibility for the use of weapons, Facebook’s head of multicultural Christian Martinez should acknowledge that the ad targeting options that have made Facebook so successful with ad partners can be – and have been – misused.

In a post published directly after ProPublica compared Facebook’s ‘ethnic affiliation’ ad options to Jim Crow laws, Martinez foists all the responsibility for enforcing anti-discrimination laws onto government:

“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.” 

That kind of buck-passing appears throughout Facebook’s discussion of this particular area of its ad-targeting. The argument that Facebook is not targeting ads by race but by ethnic affinity is advanced again and again, first in an explanation to Ars Technica back in March and again in Martinez’s post. The statement to Ars Technica, for instance, reads:

“We cannot and do not say to advertisers that they are ethnically black. Facebook does not have a way for people to self-identify by race or ethnicity on the platform.”

That’s a weaselly and cynical explanation, one that only works if you don’t think beyond the surface detail, one directly contradicted by the very idea of ethnic affiliation in advertising. ‘Oh no, we wouldn’t dream of allowing advertisers to target users by race, no no no – but we will sell them via this proxy of exactly that, which incidentally is very effective so you should spend a lot of money with us’. 

And ultimately, using a proxy of race to target ads allows for misuse indistinguishable from actual racial profiling. We’ve already seen that it is probably a violation of the US federal Fair Housing Act, and true to form a certain scorched husk of a presidential candidate is reportedly using Facebook’s capabilities to “depress votes in demographics where Hillary Clinton is winning by wide margins” by targeting ads at black voters. These things matter. 

Facebook is not responsible for the actions of individuals, but whether it admits it or not by offering the option it is an enabler of their behaviour.

Moreover, since reportedly white people are often not assigned an ethnic affinity at all, this risks crossing the line into enabling outright discrimination, demonstrably still a problem and arguably exacerbated by technology.

It’s the same kind of implausible denial that has seen it swear blind it’s not a publisher, despite ticking most if not all of the boxes required to qualify for that title. Back in September I wrote:

“It’s directly commissioning content, it controls a distribution chain, it sells and serves ads against its content… It would be very hard to argue against Facebook being a publisher.”

And yet Facebook prevaricates, ever the player of games, arguing it’s simply a tech company that enables publishers and advertisers to achieve their own aims. In that article I argued that for the sake of its relationship with other publishers Facebook needs to step up and take responsibility for its own actions.

Now that abuses of its racial-profiling-by-proxy system are apparent, Facebook should put its hands up and admit it has enabled that misuse, rather than pawning off the responsibility elsewhere. Facebook has the state of the art technology, and accurate and targeted advertising is something that obviously should be striven for – but not at any cost. 

Does Facebook’s ‘ethnic affinity’ ad targeting go too far?
No (Esther)
Yes (Chris)

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