Kadner: Discrimination in the Facebook era

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A woman passes by the stand of Facebook last week during the Web Summit at Parque das Nacoes, in Lisbon, Portugal.
| Photo by Patricia de Melo, Getty Images

It’s remarkable how often civil rights battles won long ago need to be refought time and again and how the ugly face of racism continues to find new disguises.

After ProPublica revealed that Facebook had developed a mechanism that allowed advertisers on its site to target specific ethnic and racial groups (and exclude others), U.S. Rep. Robin Kelly, D-Ill., led a congressional campaign demanding that the social media giant immediately alter its policy or face a Justice Department investigation.


Facebook representatives met with Kelly’s staff and agreed to alter the company’s policy of allowing advertisers access to its “ethnic affinity” app, which could be used to target advertisements for real estate, employment and credit at certain racial groups while discriminating against others.

“Under the Fair Housing Act of 1968, it is illegal ‘to make, print, or publish, or cause to be made, printed, or published any notice, statement, or advertisement, with respect to the sale or rental of a dwelling that indicates any preference, limitation, or discrimination based on race, color, religions, sex, handicap, familial status, or national origin,’” stated a letter to Facebook signed by Kelly and U.S. Reps. G.K. Butterfield, D-N.C., Emanuel Cleaves, D-Mo., and Yvette Clarke, D.-N.Y., all members of the Congressional Black Caucus.

Defenders of Facebook’s practice said the company was merely being innovative by allowing its advertisers to more efficiently market their products to preferred target audiences.

Facebook maintained that it had never specifically asked its members to identify themselves by race or ethnic group, but the fact is that blacks, Hispanics, Asians and others could often be easily identified by preferences, or “affinities,” on their Facebook pages.

In fairness, Facebook also allowed advertisers to target certain age groups, people with certain food preferences, those who liked certain types of music and those who lived in specific geographic areas, and the like.

Again, all of these things could be used to target, or eliminate, racial groups.

Facebook, one of the most popular internet sites in the world, generates all of its revenue from advertising. Membership is free. Facebook’s founder, Mark Zuckerberg, is one of the richest men in the world and his development of the company while in college was the subject of a Hollywood movie.

In response to Facebook’s decision to alter its marketing scheme, Kelly stated, “I applaud Facebook’s efforts to ensure that countless consumers will not be subject to unfair bias and discrimination by advertisers using the ethnic affinity marketing tool. … Technological innovation must remain our great equalizer, not evolve into a means of division.”

Yet, there are many indications that the internet is indeed evolving into a way of bringing terrorists, racists and hate groups of all types together in a way that doesn’t immediately attract public attention and avoids public scrutiny.

The Facebook marketing gimmick that allowed advertisers to specifically avoid blacks, also allowed such advertisers to target that group. But reports of exclusion, particularly in advertisements offering real estate and investment opportunities, attracted Kelly’s attention.

I tried to contact Facebook officials by leaving voice mail messages and sending emails, but never received a reply.

In a blog post, one top Facebook official stated, “Discriminatory advertising has no place on Facebook.” The company will ask advertisers to pledge not to engage in discriminatory advertising and create tools to disable the ethnic affinity marketing app for housing, employment and credit advertisements.

Customized micro targeting is a fact of life today. Advertisers don’t have to waste money trying to reach audiences that are unlikely to buy their products. But they can also avoid customers they don’t want.

In the olden days this would have been obvious if someone had paid for a print advertisement containing the words, “No coloreds need apply.” Our methods of communication have grown more sophisticated.

So have the ways people can discriminate.

Email: philkadner@gmail.com

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