According to a new report from Propublica, advertisers that purchase ads on Facebook are able to target them toward certain users based on what the site calls "ethnic affinities."
Using the social media platform's self-service advertising portal, advertisers can stop Facebook users from seeing the ad based on characteristics like being African-American, Asian-American, and Hispanic. Because Facebook doesn't require users to identify with a race when creating a profile, the site says users are placed in a category based on the pages and posts that they like and engage with.
But advertisers are effectively able use this tool to target only white audiences or those with a caucasian "affinity," according to the report, which some say bucks the spirit and maybe even the letter of the housing and employment advertisement provisions of the Fair Housing Act of 1968 and Civil Rights Act of 1964.
"This is horrifying. This is massively illegal," civil rights lawyer John Relman told Propublica. "This is about as blatant a violation of the federal Fair Housing Act as one can find."
Facebook's privacy and public policy manager, Steve Satterfield, insisted the reason the function exists is to help advertisers test their marketing performance on different groups, especially if those ads are in different languages.
"We take a strong stand against advertisers misusing our platform: Our policies prohibit using our targeting options to discriminate, and they require compliance with the law," Satterfield said. "We take prompt enforcement action when we determine that ads violate our policies."
But when Probublica managed to purchase and create an ad for people who might be house-hunting, and excluded users with African American and Hispanic "ethnic affinities," the ad was reportedly approved within 15 minutes. Facebook declined to comment on the ad.