Is Facebook Even Trying To Fix Its Problem With Racial Discrimination In Housing Ads?

Written by Staff

After a 2016 ProPublica investigative report showed that Facebook lets housing advertisers exclude users by race, Facebook promised to make changes and do better.

A year later, a follow-up investigation by New York City nonprofit ProPublica found that the Facebook has barely changed any of its practices. ProPublica produces investigative journalism in the public interest. The news organization said it usually forbids impersonation in news gathering — in this case, posting fake ads.

“However, the U.S. Department of Housing and Urban Development, now headed by Trump-appointed Ben Carson, has turned a blind eye toward Facebook, closing its inquiry into the company’s practices,” The Verge reported. “That means it’s largely up to investigative journalists, watch dogs, and advocacy groups to hold the company accountable.”

ProPublica was able to buy targeted housing ads in tests that excluded African-Americans, Jews, and Spanish speakers, among others. Such ad targeting violates the federal Fair Housing Act, which is meant to protect against discriminatory practices in real estate and rental industries that have historically targeted black, Asian, Latino and other renters.

Facebook’s automated ad buying system has been getting negative attention for other reasons. In September, Facebook announced that it discovered $100,000 worth of political ads placed by “inauthentic” Russian accounts, designed to divide the U.S.

From ProPublica. Story by Julia Angwin, Ariana Tobin and Madeleine Varner.

In February, Facebook said it would step up enforcement of its prohibition against discrimination in advertising for housing, employment or credit.

But our tests showed a significant lapse in the company’s monitoring of the rental market.

Last week, ProPublica bought dozens of rental housing ads on Facebook, but asked that they not be shown to certain categories of users, such as African Americansmothers of high school kids, people interested in wheelchair rampsJewsexpats from Argentina and Spanish speakers.

All of these groups are protected under the federal Fair Housing Act, which makes it illegal to publish any advertisement “with respect to the sale or rental of a dwelling that indicates any preference, limitation, or discrimination based on race, color, religion, sex, handicap, familial status, or national origin.” Violators can face tens of thousands of dollars in fines.

Every single ad was approved within minutes.

The only ad that took longer than three minutes to be approved by Facebook sought to exclude potential renters “interested in Islam, Sunni Islam and Shia Islam.” It was approved after 22 minutes.

Under its own policies, Facebook should have flagged these ads, and prevented the posting of some of them. Its failure to do so revives questions about whether the company is in compliance with federal fair housing rules, as well as about its ability and commitment to police discriminatory advertising on the world’s largest social network.

Facebook’s failure to police discriminatory rental ads flies in the face of its promises in February that it would no longer approve ads for housing, employment or credit that targeted racial categories. For advertising aimed at audiences not selected by race, Facebook said it would require housing, employment and credit advertisers to “self-certify” that their ads were compliant with anti-discrimination laws.

Based on Facebook’s announcement, the ads purchased by ProPublica that were aimed at racial categories should have been rejected. The others should have prompted a screen to pop up asking for self-certification. We never encountered a self-certification screen, and none of our ads were rejected by Facebook.

“This was a failure in our enforcement and we’re disappointed that we fell short of our commitments,” Ami Vora, vice president of product management at Facebook, said in an emailed statement. “The rental housing ads purchased by ProPublica should have but did not trigger the extra review and certifications we put in place due to a technical failure.”

Read more at ProPublica.

Facebook racial discrimination
Image: Mark Boardman

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