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Facebook's reported ad policy 'alarming,' says Virginia Tech expert

November 14, 2016

Brandy Faulkner

Portrait of Brandy Faulkner
Brandy Faulkner

Editor's note: Facebook announced in a Nov. 11 blog post that they will "disable the use of ethnic affinity marketing for ads that we identify as offering housing, employment, or credit."

A Virginia Tech expert says Facebook’s reported policy of letting advertisers exclude users by race — especially for ads involving housing and employment — “should be alarming to us all.”

ProPublica and other news outlets have reported that the social networking platform “not only allows advertisers to target users by their interests or background, it also gives advertisers the ability to exclude specific groups it calls ‘Ethnic Affinities.’”

Brandy Faulkner, a Virginia Tech visiting assistant professor in political science, noted that targeted advertising isn’t new — it’s actually the lifeblood of many digital marketing strategies. 

But, Faulkner said, “it's clear that the Fair Housing Act and its amendments specifically prohibit discrimination against protected categories — race, religion, nationality, sex, disability, family status and age.” The federal law prohibits any advertising that indicates a preference in one of the protected categories.

Whether that law or others applies in Facebook’s case is now the subject of a proposed class action lawsuit, according to media reports.

About Faulkner

Faulkner's areas of specialization include constitutional and administrative law; race, gender, ethnicity, and public policy; and critical organization theory. 

View her bio.

Quoting Faulkner

“When we think about how intricately housing is linked to our well-being, it should be alarming to us all that certain groups may be excluded from opportunities to experience the security of a safe and healthy living environment.”

“While Facebook's policy does indicate that its ‘Ethnic Affinity’ filter should not be used for purposes inconsistent with the law, I think the company also takes for granted that renters and landlords and property owners and managers will generally do the right thing. When we look at the housing discrimination statistics, I'm not convinced we can afford such a generous deference.”

“We will soon be under the leadership of a president who was sued for housing discrimination. And although the discriminatory behavior is subtler now when compared to 40 years ago, I think what's happening on Facebook is an indicator that the problem still persists.”

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