Facebook’s Ad Targeting Feature Discriminates, Even When Advertisers Don't Want It To
Photo Credit: AfroTech

Facebook’s Ad Targeting Feature Discriminates, Even When Advertisers Don't Want It To

Facebook has had a lengthy list of privacy and advertising scandals within the last year. Recently, the U.S. Department of Housing and Urban Development is charging Facebook for housing discrimination in its ads.

HUD alleged that Facebook’s ad platform “discriminated in the terms, conditions, or privileges of the sale or rental of dwellings because of race, color, religion, sex, familial status, national origin or disability.”

Now, a recent report from Cornell University shows that Facebook’s ads can discriminate against groups even when advertisers don’t want them to.

“Advertising platforms can play an independent, central role in creating skewed, and potentially discriminatory, outcomes,” the report said.

The report found that the lower the daily budget an ad had, the fewer women saw it. The content of an ad can also skew the types and amount of people who see it. Researchers used public voter records in one test, resulting in the post being delivered to specific audiences, even when there was no targeting for the ad.

The report could spell out trouble for Facebook’s case against HUD because researchers say that housing opportunity and employment ads had skewed delivery across racial and gender lines.

The report also said that automation could be impacting the amount of ad discrimination Facebook users are experiencing. Artificial intelligence and automation technologies have come under criticism because it can amplify biases harming people of color and women. The report suggested that advertisers should be more transparent in their practices, but also called on legislators for action.

“Regulators, lawmakers, and platforms themselves will
need to more deeply consider whether and how longstanding civil
rights laws apply to modern advertising platforms in light of ad
delivery dynamics,” the report said.

The Communications Decency Act (CDA) currently provides immunity for platforms and companies acting as publishers for third-party content. Facebook won a recent lawsuit using the CDA, citing advertisers are “wholly responsible for deciding where, how, and when to publish their ads.”

“Our research shows that this claim is misleading, particularly in light of Facebook’s role in determining the ad delivery outcomes,” the Cornell report said. “Our research demonstrates that Facebook’s
own, independent actions during the delivery phase are crucial to
determining how, when, and to whom ads are shown.”

Facebook’s battle with HUD is far from over, and with new research rising to the surface, the company may have to revamp how its ad platform works.