The U.S. Department of Housing and Urban Development (HUD) filed a discrimination complaint against Facebook on August 18 for violating the Fair Housing Act. More to the point, HUD alleged that the social network’s dizzying array of ad-targeting tools allowed landlords and home sellers to engage in discriminatory housing practices.
How? By illegally selecting the demographics that could and could not view their ads based upon color, familial status, sex, religion, national origin, disability, and/or zip code.
In the press release, HUD cited several instances where this had happened including display ads that flagged users interested in disabilities-related topics such as “accessibility” or “assistance dog,” while others engaged in redlining--i.e. excluding recipients living in specific ZIP codes--from viewing ads.
No More Exclusion
Barely a week later, Facebook has moved with lightning speed to purge its network of discriminatory ads. The company has nixed more than 5,000 ad-targeting options from its platform to prevent advertisers from posting discriminatory ads. Nearly all targeting options in the “exclusion” category have been removed.
Going forward, advertisers will no longer be able to exclude people interested in things such as “Islamic Culture,” “Evangelicalism” or “Passover.” They will, however, still be able to target those that are interested in those terms. Housing ads in particular fall under strict regulations because U.S. law expressly prohibits housing discrimination based on race, religion, sex and disability among other criteria.
What’s particularly striking is the speed and thoroughness with which FB has moved to address HUD’s concerns.
Understandably, the complaint was likely to trigger a formal fact-finding investigation, which might have culminated in formal charges of discrimination against the company. Whereas this marked the first time HUD has raised such charges against FB, it was not the first time the company was hearing about the issue.
In 2016, non-profit investigative group ProPublica was the first entity to raise the issue. Shortly thereafter, Facebook was hit up with a class action lawsuit by three people who accused the company of allowing advertisers to use its “ethnic affinity” option to exclude people from certain ethnicities including African-American, Hispanics and Asian-Americans from viewing their promos.
A No-Nonsense Facebook
Targeting has made Facebook the powerful ad machine it is today. In fact, there are many marketers who have used those options in legitimate ways to reach people interested in certain products and services. Unfortunately, there is always a chance that bad actors will use them to sow discourse. Case in point is the Russian Internet Research Agency which leveraged the tool to divide Americans, mostly along racial lines, during the last elections.
Facebook is now operating on a no-nonsense mode, and appears unwilling to take chances with anything that can further damage to its already tenuous public image. With mid-term elections less than 90 days away, the company has announced that it has taken down 652 pages, groups and accounts for what it has termed as “coordinated inauthentic behavior”.
The company says the activity originated in Russia and Iran though the two were distinct campaigns that were not linked. The company acted on a tip-off from cybersecurity firm, FireEye.
In unrelated incidences, FB says it has also taken down Pages, groups and accounts linked to sources the U.S. government has identified as Russian military intelligence services.
And finally in a rather China-esque move, Facebook has begun assigning a “reputation” score to users that will be used to gauge their trustworthiness. FB says it will use the algorithmic tool to monitor users who have been gaming the system by issuing fake red flags for untrue news and publications.
By Alex Kimani for Safehaven.com
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