Earlier this year, Facebook vowed to increase enforcement to prevent discriminatory advertising on the social media site. However, a new study by ProPublica suggests that their enforcement efforts aren’t living up to those promises.
To see just how well Facebook’s anti-discrimination policies were working, ProPublica purchased dozens of rental housing ads on the site, but specifically requested that they not be shown to a variety of groups protected under the federal Fair Housing Act. That act makes it illegal to run ads that indicate “any preference, limitation, or discrimination based on race, color, religion, sex, handicap, familial status, or national origin.”
The ads targeted men and women, aged 18-65, living in New York City, and highlighted categories such as “first-time buyer,” “house hunting,” and “buying a house.”
However, ProPublica requested that their Facebook ads exclude a wide variety of groups, including “African Americans, mothers of high school kids, people interested in wheelchair ramps, Jews, expats from Argentina, and Spanish speakers.” The results speak for themselves: all of the ads were approved by Facebook. Most of the ads were approved in less than five minutes. One ad proposing to exclude potential renters “interested in Islam, Sunni Islam, and Shia Islam” took the longest to get approval—a whopping 22 minutes.
As ProPublica explains, according to its own policies Facebook should have flagged these ads and either blocked them entirely or asked ProPublica to “self-certify” that the ads complied with federal anti-discrimination law. ProPublica says they never encountered a single self-certification screen during their purchase of the ads.
When confronted about the situation, Facebook emailed ProPublica a statement. In it, Ami Vora, VP Product Management, Facebook, said, “This was a failure in our enforcement and we’re disappointed that we fell short of our commitments.” While pointing out that their safeguards have successfully flagged millions of ads, in this case the ads slipped through due to a “technical failure.”
Vora added, "While we currently require compliance notifications of advertisers that seek to place ads for housing, employment, and credit opportunities, we will extend this requirement to ALL advertisers who choose to exclude some users from seeing their ads on Facebook to also confirm their compliance with our anti-discrimination policies—and the law.”
You can read more about ProPublica’s investigation, as well as see screenshots of the ad-purchase process, by clicking here.