The Ethics of Targeting Minorities with Dark Ads

For years, advertisers have been able to target and exclude people using “dark ads.” Often, those ads have targeted and excluded minorities.

In 2018, the U.S. Department of Housing and Urban Development filed a complaint against Facebook,alleging that the social media platform had violated the Fair Housing Act. Facebook had done this, the complaint alleges, by allowing advertisers to discriminate against users based on sex, race, religion and even by interests such as “mobility scooter” and “deaf culture.”

“Facebook mines extensive user data and classifies its users based on protected characteristics,” the HUD complaint said. “Facebook’s ad targeting tools then invite advertisers to express unlawful preferences by suggesting discriminatory options, and Facebook effectuates the delivery of housing-related ads to certain users and not others based on those users’ actual or imputed protected traits.”

After the complaint, Facebook responded by saying that “there is no place for discrimination” and removed 5,000 ad target options. “While these options have been used in legitimate ways to reach people interested in a certain product or service, we think minimizing the risk of abuse is more important,” Facebook said in a blog post.

But the charges of discrimination by Facebook aren’t new; for the past three years, Facebook has been consistently hounded by charges that its platform allows for discriminatory targeting. A 2016 investigation by ProPublica found that Facebook advertisers could create housing ads allowing posters to exclude black people and, a year later, found that Facebook hadn’t fixed the issue. In 2018, the American Civil Liberties Union and three women filed a lawsuit against Facebook claiming that they were blocked from seeing job ads posted by 10 businesses that were using Facebook’s ad system to show job postings only to men—if true, this would likely be a violation of Title VII of the Civil Rights Act of 1964, which protects employees and job applicants from discrimination based on sex, race, religion and national origin.

These dark ads are made to be seen by specific groups but unviewable by others; some may refer to them as microtargeting or nano-targeting. The public became most aware of dark ads during the Cambridge Analytica controversy in 2018, when The Guardian reported that President Donald Trump’s 2016 campaign relied heavily on dark ads, often running 50,000 to 60,000 variations of Facebook advertisements each day. Brad Parscale, digital media director of Trump’s 2016 campaign and campaign manager for the 2020 campaign, told Bloomberg that they used these dark ads to target black voters. The aim of the ads was lowering voter turnout for Democratic candidate Hillary Clinton, Bloomberg reported.


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