EDITORIAL: Give pink slip to hiring bias on social media

SHARE EDITORIAL: Give pink slip to hiring bias on social media

A complaint has been filed with the U.S. government accusing Facebook and 10 other companies of using the platform’s job ad targeting system to discriminate on the basis of gender. The complaint was announced Sept 18, by the American Civil Liberties Union, the Communications Workers of America and a labor law firm, on behalf of three female job seekers and a group of “thousands” of members represented by the union. (Photo by Lionel BONAVENTURE / AFP)

Big social media platforms have made it easy for employers to discriminate by gender or age when hiring. Facebook and other large advertising platforms can’t let that go on.

In the past, an ad in the traditional media for a job opening — in a newspaper or magazine, for example — could be seen and read by pretty much anyone. Now, as a result of the “micro-targeting” techniques perfected by social media companies, it is easy to post ads that are seen only by particular demographic groups, such as men but not women or people under age 54.


People who are not targeted by such ads never even know what they missed.

But as a matter of civil rights law, employers generally are not allowed to discriminate in hiring on the basis of gender, age, race, religion or sexual orientation. And their job advertising can’t discriminate, either.

Americans marched in the streets to end such workplace bias.

In a complaint with the Equal Employment Opportunity Commission filed on Tuesday, however, a group of women along with the ACLU and the Communication Workers of America accused Facebook and nine other companies of posting job ads for such things as window installers and truck drivers that only men would see. Earlier complaints allege that hundreds of companies posted ads only younger Facebook users would see.

Micro-targeting is entirely acceptable when it comes, say, to selling shoes or books. It is more efficient and keeps costs down. But when it comes to advertising job openings, micro-targeting can be a tool of discrimination every bit as unacceptable as the old “red lining” practices of real estate brokers and banks, which restricted African Americans to certain neighborhoods.

The New York Times cited the case of one plaintiff, a mother of three who said she had a much harder time getting leads through Facebook than her husband did for manual labor jobs.

LinkedIn says it will take down employment ads that exclude women, and Google says it will take down ads that exclude any legally protected class. But Facebook has argued that the fault lies not with them, but with the companies that place the ads. Facebook points to a law that says internet companies aren’t liable for the content created by third parties.

Even then, of course, Facebook still would be responsible for an ad that it posted itself, for a Facebook career fair. The ad, to which older workers understandably objected, micro-targeted people ages 21 to 55.

Expecting government regulators to track down all the online advertisers who run afoul of federal equal opportunity laws is pretty unrealistic. No one who sees such ads even knows who else has — or has not — seen them.

As often is the case, the job of monitoring the worst social media content — the illegal and the patently offensive — must fall to the social media giants themselves.

It is on them to be good corporate citizens.

Send letters to letters@suntimes.com.

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