Congressional Black Caucus Challenges Facebook on Ethnic Affinities

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November 2, 2016; Charlotte Observer

Four Congressional Black Caucus members dispatched a pointed letter to Facebook CEO Mark Zuckerberg advising him of their “deep concern with reports that Facebook’s ‘Ethnic Affinities’ advertising customization feature allows for advertisers to exclude specific racial and ethnic groups when placing housing advertising.” The practice, they warned, is a possible violation of federal anti-discrimination housing law.

The letter, signed by Representatives Robin Kelly (D-NY), Emanuel Cleaver (D-MO), and Yvette Clarke, (D-NY), and G.K. Butterfield, the chair of the 45-member group, also observed that the problem was aggravated by the lack of diversity in Facebook’s staff management and boardroom. “We remain convinced that a stronger commitment to diversifying the ranks of your company, especially in senior management positions…will help in ensuring that innovative and inclusive platforms continue to be promoted by your company.”

What the Caucus finds neither innovative nor inclusive is the use of “ethnic affinities” to target ads. The initial response from Facebook’s privacy and public policy manager, Steve Satterfield, was that “this kind of multicultural targeting is common in the industry.” As the story grew legs, the company changed their tune, stating, “We’ve heard from groups and policy makers who are concerned about some of the ways our targeting tools could be used by advertisers. We are listening and working to better understand these concerns.”

Facebook has used ethnic affinity groupings for two years in its multicultural targeting but does not consider them equivalent to race. They do not ask members about race; instead, they create a demographic profile based on their posts and interactions. This allows advertisers to target based on projections of income, location, professional and personal interests, age—and so-called “ethnic affinities.”

Few companies have the wealth and specificity of data compiled by Facebook. Research suggests they have developed more than 50,000 categories for their over 2 billion members, making it simple for clients who, for example, place housing listings to determine who does or does not receive them. Facebook has stated that if discrimination exists, the fault lies with clients, emphasizing, “We take prompt enforcement action when we determine that ads violate our policies.” However, the methodology ProPublica used in its investigation to identify discrimination was simply completing the questions to place a paid ad. According to ProPublica, “Facebook declined to answer questions as to why our housing-categories ad excluding minority groups was approved 15 minutes after we placed the order.”

Facebook might want to take a page out of the New York Times’ improved playbook. The Times was successfully and expensively sued for racial discrimination in its housing ads in 1989. Today, according to Steph Jespersen, the Times’ director of advertising accountability, “The staff runs automated programs to ensure that ads containing discriminatory phrases such as ‘whites only’ and ‘no kids’ are rejected.” Humans conduct a final review.

This is not the Congressional Black Caucus’s first interaction with Facebook. The tech giant was one of the Silicon Valley companies singled out for poor hiring records in diversity staffing and management in May 2015. Compared to other Silicon Valley stalwarts, Facebook’s record has been the worst since it began reporting its numbers.

The goal of the Caucus is to establish partnerships through its Tech 2020 initiative to address perceived “pipeline” issues. In 2014, on average, just two percent of technology workers at the seven Silicon Valley companies that released staffing numbers were black; three percent were Hispanic. This is despite the fact that according to a USA Today analysis, “top universities turn out African American and Latino computer science and computer engineering graduates at twice the rate leading technology companies hire them.” Now that Facebook is listening, the Congressional Black Caucus is certainly watching.—Mary Frances Mitchner