(Still) Letting Housing Advertisers Exclude Users by Race
ProPublica revealed last year that Facebook advertisers could target
housing ads to whites only, the company announced it had built a system
to spot and reject discriminatory ads. We retested and found major
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.
single ad was approved within minutes.
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.” Itwas
approvedafter 22 minutes.
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.
employment and credit are the three areas in which federal law
prohibits discriminatory ads. However, the U.S. Department of Housing
and Urban Development — the agency responsible for enforcing fair
housing laws — told us that it has closed an inquiry into Facebook’s
advertising policies, reducing pressure on the company to address the
issue. In a 2015 newspaper column, Ben Carson, now HUD secretary,
criticized “government-engineered attempts to legislate racial
equality” in housing.
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.
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.
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 anemailed
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.”
added that Facebook’s anti-discrimination system had “successfully
flagged millions of ads” in the credit, employment and housing
categories and that Facebook will now begin requiring
self-certification for ads in all categories that choose to exclude an
audience segment. “Our systems continue to improve but we can do
better,” Vora said.
37 percent of U.S. households rented in 2016, representing a 50-year
high, according tothe
Joint Center for Housing Studies of Harvard University. On
average, renters earn about half as much as homeowners, and the
percentage of families with children that rent rather than buy has
increased sharply in the past decade, the study said. Minority renters
have long faced pervasive housing discrimination. A 2013 study by HUD
estate agents showmore units to whites than
to African Americans, Asians and Latinos.
has long been a popular destination for rental listings, on pages
hosted by real estate brokers, property owners and building managers.
Earlier this month, Facebook announced that it had added two large
providers of rental listings to its Facebook Marketplace service.
“Marketplace is a popular place for people to look for a home to
rent,” Facebook product manager Bowen Pansaid
in a press release.
anti-discrimination initiative was prompted by anarticle
published last year by ProPublica. For that story, we bought a
Facebook ad targeting house hunters. We were able to use Facebook’s
features to block the ad from being shown to anyone with an “affinity”
for African American, Asian American or Hispanic people. Our ability
to narrow the audience based on race raised the question of whether
such ads violated the Fair Housing Act.
ProPublica’s article appeared in the fall of 2016, HUD, then under the
Obama administration, beganexamining
Facebook’s practices. Facebook then said it wouldbuild
an automated systemto spot ads that
discriminate illegally. “We take these issues seriously,” Facebook
Vice President Erin Egan wrotein
a blog post. “Discriminatory advertising has no place on
has been under fire for other aspects of its automated ad buying
system as well. Two months ago, the company disclosed that it had
discovered $100,000 worth ofdivisive
political ads placed by “inauthentic” Russian accounts. And in
reportedthat Facebook’s ad targeting system
allowed buyers to reach people who identified themselves as “Jew
haters” and other anti-Semitic categories. Facebook pledged to remove
the offending categories and to hire thousands more employees to
enforce its ad policies.
adding additional layers of review where people use potentially
sensitive categories for targeting,” Facebook General Counsel Colin
Stretch said during Senate testimony earlier this month.
Stretch’s public statement, we wondered whether the ability to buy
discriminatory housing ads had really been addressed. So we set out to
buy an advertisement with the exact same targeting parameters as the
ad we bought last year. The ad promoted a fictional apartment for rent
and was targeted at people living in New York, ages 18–65, who were
house hunting and likely to move. We asked Facebook not to show the ad
to people categorized under the “multicultural affinity” of Hispanic,
African American or Asian American.
generally forbids impersonation in news gathering. We felt in this
instance that the public interest in Facebook’s ad system justified
the brief posting of a fake ad for non-existent housing. We deleted
each ad as soon as it was approved.)
only changes from last year that we could identify in Facebook’s ad
buying system was that the category called “Ethnic Affinity” had been
renamed “Multicultural Affinity” and was no longer part of
“Demographics.” It is now designated as part of “Behaviors.”
ad was approved within minutes.
we decided to test whether we could purchase housing ads that
discriminated against other protected categories of people under the
Fair Housing Act.
placed ads that sought to exclude members of as many of the protected
categories as we could find in Facebook’s self-service advertising
portal. In addition to those mentioned above, we bought ads that were
blocked from being shown to “soccer moms,” people interested in
American sign language, gay men and Christians.
also tested whether it was possible to use geography as a way to
target racial groups — a practice known as redlining. We bought a
housing ad that targeted ZIP codes in Brooklyn whose residents are
more than 50 percent non-Hispanic white people, according to theU.S.
Census bureau. By definition, that meant the ad was not shown to
Facebook users living in Brooklyn neighborhoods where minorities are a
majority of the residents.
drew blue lines around our target neighborhoods and told us our
“audience selection is great!” It approved the ad.