I might just be a French person who can’t grasp all the intricacies of the racial issues in the US society. But I’m not seeing the problem here…
If your company wants to sell cosmetic products for natural long blond hair, you’re not going to advertise to black men, I’m pretty sure you want to advertise to white women to reach your market.
Now, I am indeed bothered by the fact that Facebook is a world database of people classified by their names, religions, skin color, and political opinions. But maybe this is just me being a European who’s been told since middle school that this kind of practice is the root of all evil because Nazis and Soviets did it.
I think this gap in sensibilities and perception between the US and Europe is only widening.
It’s as if tracking the most intimate details of people’s lives for profiled advertising is ok, but once you sell ads to a black/white/other ethnicity, then the ethical line is crossed? That line has been crossed long ago, sadly.
Well, leaving aside moral issues, in some categories, like advertising housing, any form of discrimination based on race is simply illegal.
In the united states there is still a huge problem with racial discrimination. Racial seggregation did not end until the 1964 civil rights act. That was only 52 years ago, and of course it took a long time for people and governments to actually change to catch up with the law. There are still people alive today affected by seggregation, jim crow and share cropping. (which was also still ongoing into the 50’s) If facebook gives people the option to avoid advertising to black americans becuase they are racist and don’t want black customers, it is a huge deal becuase people already do this offline. Its illegal to discriminate based off race, and it is still a somewhat common thing that happens.
Legal segregation didn’t end until 1964. Unofficially it continued on, in parts and in places, until today. We’re heading in the right direction, and for the most part our hearts are in the right place, but we don’t always take the most direct path to an improved world…
Yeah I think this is the big important detail that non-americans don’t get about our culture. There are people alive in america today whose parents were slaves because of their race.
“Now, I am indeed bothered by the fact that Facebook is a world database of people classified by their names, religions, skin color, and political opinions.”
You’re not the only one. Many Americans feel the same way where we fought for private alternatives as long as we could before all these kinds of services dominated. Many won’t share anything too personal on Facebook. Others don’t use Facebook. Others don’t carry a cellphone for fear of tracking or recording. These privacy-oriented crowds are a small niche that seems to get smaller over time. There was a slight boost in the numbers post-Snowden but most won’t migrate off the surveillance platforms since there’s a networking cost. All their friends, data, or favorite activities are on the thing they need to leave. Many of them are putting more activities on a similar platform right as I type this. ;)
Anyway, Facebook is so bad some groups even joke about it similar to what you’re describing:
This feature could be used to upcharge one race over another which is of course illegal. It’s one thing to have ads that are for one particular demographic, it’s another entirely to have ads which can only be seen by one demographic.
I feel like I’m supposed to care but I don’t. Race seems like a pretty reasonable thing to target people by when it comes to advertising.
In the US, there is a long history of racial discrimination hidden behind corporate motives. Selective advertising was and is literally a part of that. This kind of racism is still alive and well there. That is why it is legislated against.
This also ties more directly into discrimination in sale and on price than print ads, as online ads can offer lower prices, and can link directly to the buying page, being essentially an extension of the storefront. So, using this technology plus standard web technology you can have a special store that only people of certain races can access, which offers better prices and exclusive goods.
If you were talking about a different place that did not have that history, and did not have that current situation, then this might not be such a big deal, as people might just decide not to use the technology this way. But in the US, you can bet that many companies will use it this way, even if it means they earn less money - that is how powerful the ideology of white supremacy is in the US.
The reason that US law and history are important here is that Facebook is largely an american company, inasmuch as any multinational can be tied to a single nation.
I don’t see anything wrong with, say, marketing Indian products to Indian users…
You can already market based on interests, and this should actually get you better and more effective targetting in terms of sales than race based targetting. The only reason to target based on race is racism.
For the sake of everybody that is trying to actually advance civil rights and equality, we all have to put forth more articulate arguments about why a policy should be adopted. Otherwise, we get ignored out of hand because our claims lack substance and rationality.
As a starting point, maybe argue about products that are bought equally across demographics without specific market targeting. Alternately, argue that the racial groupings for targeting are constructs of advertising companies designed to artificially segment the population and increase demand.
But for God’s sake argue something, instead of just blandly asserting “no you’re wrong”.
Both those laws say you can’t publish an ad that indicates any discrimination. But Facebook lets you not publish the ad to certain people. In other words, the discrimination is in the publishing, not the ad. Which is arguably no different from choosing to advertise in English newspapers but not Spanish, or in Robb Report rather than Jet. So it certainly doesn’t appear to me to be slam-dunk “massively illegal”. At worst it’s another case of laws not caught up to modern reality.
I think that that’s a distinction without a difference, when it comes to racial discrimination in housing, which is an endemic problem in the USA. It is pervasive and difficult to eradicate enough that housing markets (rightfully, in my view) fall under heightened legal scrutiny.
I am in no way attempting to defend housing discrimination, or any other form of racial discrimination…but that position just can’t be right in general. It would imply that you’re required by federal law to publicize your available housing as widely as possible. In that interpretation, trying to sell my house by putting a for-sale sign in my yard would be illegal because there are some protected classes of people that are very rare in my neighborhood.
IANAL, but I read the act and it’s all about refusing to sell or rent, refusing to grant loans, in other words blocking someone from completing a housing transaction. There’s no apparent requirement to make sure everyone equally knows that the housing exists.
When we showed Facebook’s racial exclusion options to a prominent civil rights lawyer John Relman, he gasped and said, “This is horrifying. This is massively illegal. This is about as blatant a violation of the federal Fair Housing Act as one can find.”
I was about to say the same thing. This is so bad that it’s not even on the map. And this from a company that tries to be so politically correct. Posting a nipple gets you banned, but racial profiling for commercial purposes is just fine and dandy? What a disgrace.
Zuckerberg should step down over this.
That act applies, as the title suggests, to housing ads. I would think that Facebook can provide a service that includes ad exclusions and then when you use that to advertise a house you’ve broken the law, not Facebook. Think about all those Chinese Craigslist ads that ask for Chinese people.
The morality is another thing, but it’s not illegal.
…racial profiling for commercial purposes is just fine and dandy? What a disgrace.
Advertising has been about targeting your audience as tightly as possible for decades. Given the glee with which adtech has been rolled out in the last two decades, it seems a bit late to clutch pear!s.
Please do not say such absurd things in the heat of the moment–it makes you look silly and sets,bad precedent for discussion quality.
Given the glee with which adtech has been rolled out in the last two decades, it seems a bit late to clutch pear!s.
I wouldn’t describe objecting to racial discrimination as “pearl clutching”, and regardless, the timing of the objection has nothing to do with its validity. Because Facebook has gotten away with being scummy for a while, we should just let them keep doing it?
I believe that it is fair to say that discrimination is at the core of effective advertising.
There are all kinds of odd kitchen implements that your bog-standard “suburban white American” will buy and never use. There are all sorts of ingredients and services that are primarily purchased by various Asian-American subpopulations. There are personal hygiene and grooming products mostly used by African Americans. There are religious candles for Mexican Americans. Pick a demographic in the US and I guarantee you’ll find a product that is almost unique to that group and culture.
Similarly, there are types of housing most attractive to low-income first-time family buyers. There are housing types most attractive as rentable properties for people of means to purchase, refurbish, and rent. There are properties in areas that have exceptionally WASPy environments, or are exceptionally close to public transportation hubs or spokes. Again, all sorts of target buying demographics.
Ad impressions aren’t free. Why would we want to pay for impressions for a members of a group that is less likely to buy whatever it is we’re selling?
If you want to make the argument that it’s terrible that housing markets are stratified along class (and thus, to a varying extent, racial lines), I’ll agree with you. If you want to pass around a petition requiring racial quotas to help diversify neighborhoods, I’ll probably sign it if for no other reason that to put freedom of association to the test. If you want to start a Github project to automatically randomize or scrub images of visible racial features, I’ll drop a pull request.
But what I can’t get worked up about is advertisers using every tool that has been already been provisioned they can to target they messages most effectively. And frankly, I don’t think anybody else should.
Excellent write-up. I’ll give a recent example that was kind of funny to me. I was talking to a white, moderate stocker at a grocery store that knew my controversial style of humor well enough to not dismiss a helpful comment as pure racism or something. His produce section had no greens (eg turnip/mustard). I nudged him as he was making his list of stuff to stock that he better put some out quickly before a “mob of angry, older, black women show up to make him regret it.” He laughed, rolled his eyes, and moved on thinking I was just showing my own bias & not worth commenting on. I moved on. Probably 5 minutes later I saw him bust through the cooler doors all red-faced carrying a thing of greens. Asked what’s up and he said there were three, older, black women yelling at him along the lines of “Why aren’t there greens on the shelf? You always need to eat your greens young man!” or similar loud, condescending wording. I grinned and walked off as he learned the lesson.
In this case study, he didn’t realize that food probably comes second after music in terms of what black culture passes down generation by generation. They have a distinctive set of both ingredients and methods they cook with vs other groups in general. As guy who gags smelling greens, I found this out the hard way after about every black friend or friend’s parents tried to feed me different variations on them. The rural whites, city whites, Mexican decent, Italian decent… all had this same pattern with food traditions common among people in the group. Plus others as you described with especially the combs that black people used in middle school coming to mind. Never saw a white person buy them.
Makes a ton of sense to target advertising where specific things a group likes are more visible to members of that group for best bang for buck. Don’t deny the product itself so individuals can still decide for themselves on any specific product. Yet, it’s not racist to advertise greens to black people that buy greens way more than white people with a limited ad budget. And so on and so forth.
Don’t deny the product itself so individuals can still decide for themselves on any specific product.
Thats the problem though with online products. If you don’t advertise to black people and only advertise to whites, the black people have no chance to even make a decision on those things. Its not like walking through a grocery store where you can see everything on a shelf. On top of that the US has a history of racial discrimination in offering services to white customers but not telling black customers about a service or even claiming it is not available.. It is why facebook giving this option is such a big deal here.
These are good points. It has to be discoverable to meet my criteria. They need to at least be able to find it with Google or some other search. Past that, the signal vs noise ratio of Internet search rankings drowns out tons of stuff regardless of who they wanted to see it just like advertising. Whereas you can see what’s in a grocery store because the government paid for the paths to it, car sellers make money getting minorities there, and so do whoever provided them a home. Likewise, lots of people can’t shop at specific stores due to a geography, distribution, or income problem. May or may not be something there to map to online problem.
You can’t just walk through grocery stores due to their nature, though. The opportunity and means to get there were part of the equation.
Some decent points, but I do disagree with you about discoverability:
If you don’t advertise to black people and only advertise to whites, the black people have no chance to even make a decision on those things. Its not like walking through a grocery store where you can see everything on a shelf.
This is exactly what search engines are for, and what link aggregators are for–and places like Padmapper, Craigslist, and all the other online real-estate folks.
I’m not sure that by taking that position we aren’t grossly underestimating that population.
Companies run advertisements on things specifically because they don’t have high SEO for a particular product, its new, or their product is niche enough that most people would not just randomly search for it. Of course you also have to assume that companies like google do not manipulate search results, but as it has already been proven that googles does in fact do this, advertising for more customers on Facebook is actually a powerful way to get the word out and grow a company. Considering that in the US we already have a recent history of discriminating against black people in goods and services, there is a high potential for abuse of Facebook’s system, and people are perfectly justified in pointing out the flaws.
First version of this comment was supporting yours at angersock but thinking on it changed it into a counterpoint for you.
The search engines used to have a big problem about losing important results. I used meta engines like TurboSearch to hit as many as I can to see top pages in all of them. Helped but was a pain. Google’s PageRank was game-changing where about anything popular on certain keywords would hit the top. Any minority can generate enough links & keywords to be popular. Cheaters made them modify the algorithm to do who knows what. Their own ad optimizations made them do it again. Now, the ones on top are whoever pays highest for specific keywords with next ones usually being relevant.
That last part is key here. I’ve discovered about any minority topic I wanted to through Google with common sense key words. I also can type things like “minority-owned businesses” or “magazines for (race/gender here)” to get those. They have even more focused references. There’s Reddits, HN front page, YouTube channels… you name it. Housing info itself is available on all sorts of sites and free publications that are local. The discoverability for minority stuff or stuff by minorities is higher than it ever has been even with acts of discrimination by this or that service.
So, the status quo is things are very discoverable for any minority with an Internet connection, basic understanding of English, and basic instructions on getting accurate results in search. Then, within that status quo, there are still services that are acting in a discriminating fashion we need to identify and deal with. There’s also a side effect of legitimate, ad targeting that can do this but it’s a grey area: businesses with bad marketing and targeting often don’t survive at all. They, including minority-oriented businesses, often have to exclude people in the process of doing that. So, we can’t pretend the history of discrimination has meant minorities can’t discover stuff on the Internet that promotes their interests to the top results. Things have gotten so much better in discoverability that the discriminating ones outside legitimate ad strategies might even be the outliers this time. Need more data, though.
Quick note: Echo chambers are another thing to consider. They’re worth their own post but almost all the major content providers are using them to maximize adoption and customer retention. They discriminate as a side effect at least in your main feed but you can still find the other stuff. I do regularly on Facebook, etc. Majority’s own laziness & disconnectedness then reinforces the discrimination where they voluntarily avoid looking into the others' activity. Data here needs deep study, too.
I was referring to how google manipulates search results for their own benefit:
Google isn’t transparent about how search results pages are ranked and created and its possible there are many businesses that would never get new customers without paying for advertising.
That looks pretty damning far as discriminating against competitors. That’s a form of discrimination most businesses do, though. Still doesnt show evidence of any against minorities in particular. So Google discoverability is still high for them by default.
Plus there’s other search engines go try. I rarely use Google myself due to the ad-driven BS on top these days.
What a wonderfully pat story. I mentally added the “Re: Re: Fwd:” to the beginning and it made all the difference.
Denial of the product - in this case, housing - has long been intertwined with how it has (or hasn’t) been advertised. This is why we legislated it, and we don’t have legislation around turnip greens.
“This is why we legislated it, and we don’t have legislation around turnip greens.”
The minority customers of that chain receive the advertisement for free and the product at the same price because it’s illegal to discriminate against them. These legal protections ensure they get their turnip greens. Nice try, though.