As It Happens

You can still buy ads on Facebook that exclude people based on race, gender or religion

ProPublica discovered that Facebook is still letting users tailor advertisements to exclude certain races and genders, despite a pledge to change its policies.
Facebook CEO Mark Zuckerberg, speaking in San Francisco in 2015. (Josh Edelson/AFP/Getty Images)

Story transcript

Facebook still publishes advertisements that exclude people based on factors like race and religion. That's despite the social network promising to change its policy last February, after an investigation by ProPublica.

Recently, the journalism non-profit wanted to see if Facebook had made good on its promise. In a story published this week, ProPublica submitted ads on Facebook for things like housing and jobs, and chose which races, ages and genders could view the advertisement. Facebook published every single one of the ads within minutes.

A Facebook representative responded to the story, saying "This was a failure in our enforcement and we're disappointed that we fell short of our commitments. 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."

As ProPublica journalist Julia Angwin tells As It Happens host Carol Off, Facebook could be breaking U.S. anti-discrimination laws. Here's part of their conversation.

Julia Angwin is an investigative journalist with ProPublica. (Provided/Deborah Copaken Kogan)

Tell us about a few of these ads you tried to post on Facebook recently?

So we, at ProPublica, set up a fake Facebook page that claimed to be a housing company, and we placed rental ads. And we made them pretty non-specific — we just want to try whether we could get them through Facebook's ad buying system. And we chose to target our ads to audiences that excluded minorities, people with disabilities — lots of different characteristics.

So give us an example. How specifically did you state [the ad]?

One of our ads was "Luxury apartment for rent." It's targeted to people who are between the ages of 18 and 65, and it excludes anyone who is Hispanic. We were trying to figure out, would they let us exclude showing our ad to anyone that Facebook thinks is Hispanic? And they did.

And the way this works — do you say in the ad, "Hispanics need not apply?" How is it done, without explicitly saying "You're not allowed to respond to this ad?"

Right. Back in the old days, people actually wrote, you know "Whites Only" in their ads. Now, Facebook provides what they call "micro-targetting." So when you buy your ad, there's a little drop-down menu of "Who do you want to target your ad to?" And "who you want to exclude?" 

Was it just Hispanics that you tried to include in these fake ads?

Oh no, we tried all sorts of things. We bought dozens of ads. We excluded African-Americans, mothers of high school kids, Jews, people from Argentina, people interested in wheelchair ramps ... Anything we could find that was basically a sensitive category, that is prohibited under the Fair Housing Act.

And the ads were posted?

Yes, the ads were approved. Most of them within seconds, some within minutes. And they went live on Facebook. We immediately deleted them the moment they went live, because we weren't actually seeking to rent anything. We were just seeking to get that approval.

Is it legal to have this exclusion — to allow ads like this onto Facebook?

Well, the Fair Housing Act in the U.S. is very clear — you can't discriminate in advertisements for housing. So the publisher and the person placing the ad are both liable for making sure their ads don't discriminate. And I think, really, the only question that hasn't been decided by the courts, is — "Is the drop-down menu excluding African-Americans the same as putting a line in your ad saying, 'Only Whites Need Apply?'"

Facebook lawyer Colin Stretch, along with lawyers for Twitter and Google, testify before the Senate Judiciary Committee in October. Stretch was answering questions about how Russian operatives had used the social network to spread disinformation during the U.S. presidential election campaign. (Chip Somodevilla/Getty Images)

So it hasn't been tested in court. But it does seem to be a violation of their promises and commitments. Can you tell us what Facebook has said it allows and doesn't allow?

Yeah. Facebook said in February that it was going to get rid of discriminatory advertising like this on its platform. And they put in a system, they said, that would reject any ads for housing, credit or employment — which are the three things covered under anti-discrimination laws — that use racial categories.

The fact is, we saw [none of] those things when we did our tests.

This has not been a good stretch for Facebook. There was the discovery of divisive political ads by Russian accounts. There was, as you discovered, ads where buyers were trying to reach people who identified themselves as "Jew Haters." And now, this. Is Facebook facing up to this problem?

Facebook is lucky in that the Internet is the least regulated portion of our economy. And they did say, when this came to light last year, "We will take it upon ourselves to make sure advertisers aren't violating these civil rights laws on our platform." And they didn't do that. Now, separately, they're asking Congress to let them self-regulate — and they won't let foreign actors buy political ads. I think it raises the question about whether Facebook can regulate itself. There's not a good example of them doing well by that.

This interview has been edited for length and clarity. For more, listen to our conversation with Julia Angwin.