Just recently, the Department of Housing and Urban Development in the U.S accused Facebook of violating civil rights laws that guard against discrimination in posting housing ads.
The complaint by the government includes an allegation that has become familiar – Facebook’s targeting makes it possible for an advertiser to block an ad from reaching some people based on their gender, race, and religion.
However, the complaint had another surprising allegation based on the platform’s delivery system for ads. Specifically, the government alleges that the ad delivery system discriminated based on gender and race even when the advertisers do not want that.
‘Even if the advertiser tries to get to a broad audience that covers protected class groups, the delivery system still fails to display the ad to such a diverse audience as long as it considers such people unable to engage with the said ad,’ says HUD.
Researchers from the University of Southern California and Northeastern University have written a paper, ‘Discrimination via optimization: How Facebook’s ad delivery skews outcomes,’ that sheds light on the issue.
Essentially, Facebook’s system will send the ad to a specific person based on whether or not they will find it ‘relevant.’ However, the determination turns on stereotypes.
To write the report, researchers ran many ads on the platform and then determined the possible race and gender of the recipient. Note that Facebook does not reveal to advertisers what race the users who get the ads are likely to be. Instead, the platform breaks down results by region and designated market; information which researchers used as a proxy for race.
The report states that the system considered gender and race in serving ads.
‘Ads about housing and employment in the real world also have a skewed delivery,’ says the paper. ‘In extreme cases, job ads in the lumber industry, for example, reach a 72% white audience which is 90% male. Cashier ads for supermarkets reach 85% female audiences, and taxi company position ads reach 75% black audiences even if the advertiser targets the same market in all three cases.’
The researchers found the results to point to the fact that combating discrimination will need people to consider ad platforms as well, and not just the advertisers.
‘Digital ads influence how people see the world and the opportunities in it. They help to keep online services free,’ says the report. ‘Meanwhile, there is a potential for such ads to create a negative impact because of the optimization of the ad delivery system that is growing. Regulators, lawmakers and the different ad platforms must address such issues.’