Marketing 6 min read

The Ethical Challenges of Facebook's Targeted Advertising

Jirsak / Shutterstock

Jirsak / Shutterstock

Your race, gender identity, and other socio-demographic traits could put you on the spot of targeted advertising, or make you unethically invisible.

Is targeted advertising ethical?

Here we shed light on the issue, starting with no one else than Mark Zuckerberg.

This week, Facebook’s CEO unveiled a new initiative aimed at stopping foreign actors from meddling in the American electoral process.

Acknowledging that political disinformation campaigns have become more sophisticated since 2016, the company said it is now more prepared.

It claimed that the new measures would help reduce misinformation and protect the democratic process.

But the biggest threat to U.S. politics may not be foreign after all. The domestic threat to American democracy is as critical, if not more so.

The Facebook–Cambridge Analytica data scandal showed that unethical targeted advertising played a crucial role in the election of Donald Trump.

One former employee of the defunct Cambridge Analytica Inc. expressed her disagreement with Zuckerberg’s new initiative.

Brittany Kaiser, the former director of business development at Cambridge Analytica, said that Facebook will once again weigh heavily on the 2020 presidential elections by allowing politicians to lie in their ads.

In this on-going saga, weaponizing political misinformation clearly shows the dark side of targeted ads.

Facebook CEO Mark Zuckerberg
Facebook CEO Mark Zuckerberg | Aaron-Schwartz / Shutterstock

When is Targeted Advertising (un)Ethical?

Online ad targeting has rapidly become a widely used technique enabling marketers of all stripes to deliver their content.

For advertisers, the more targeted their ads are, the more it can increase their sales and ROI. For shoppers, this means more tailored options and more personalized user experience.

However, it’s businesses that reap the most benefits from this practice.

Targeted advertising also has the potential to take controversy around users’ privacy and ethics issues to a dangerous level.

Last year, the U.S. Department of Housing and Urban Development (HUD) accused Facebook of violating the Fair Housing Act.

Allegedly, Facebook’s ad practice allowed advertisers to discriminate against people based on their ethnicity, sex, religion, and other personal interests.

After HUD’s housing discrimination charges, Facebook responded that it would be taking measures to prevent advertisers from misusing its ad targeting platform.

Read More: Russian Targeted Ads and Facebook’s ‘age of Accountability’

Ben Carson accused Facebook of practicing unethical targeted advertising
Ben Carson accused Facebook of practicing unethical targeted advertising and violating the U.S. Fair Housing Act | Gregory Reed / Shutterstock

The company removed 5,000 targeting options to help reduce misuse, reiterating its commitment to fight discrimination on its platform.

“While these options have been used in legitimate ways to reach people interested in a certain product or service… minimizing the risk of abuse is more important. This includes limiting the ability for advertisers to exclude audiences that relate to attributes such as ethnicity or religion,” said Facebook.

“Facebook is discriminating against people based upon whom they are and where they live,” HUD Secretary Ben Carson told Bloomberg. “Using a computer to limit a person’s housing choices can be just as discriminatory as slamming a door in someone’s face.”

These housing targeted ads on Facebook’s platform excluded several groups, such as non-American-born, parents, non-Christians, and people with disabilities.

HUD’s shot at Facebook was only the start as the agency also contacted Google and Twitter to inquire about their ad targeting tools. These two major social media platforms could also be in violation of the Fair Housing Act.

In the case of Facebook, these discrimination charges are nothing new. The company faced many charges of unethical ad targeting practices over the last few years.

In 2016, ProPublica investigated Facebook’s ad targeting system.

The nonprofit organization bought an ad on Facebook for real estate. Under Behaviors/Multicultural Affinity targeting option, the ad blocked African Americans, Asian Americans, and Hispanics.

Federal laws and regulations supposedly protect all these minority groups. This was in clear violation of the federal laws prohibiting discriminatory advertising practices.

Facebook took notice and promised to make changes, but did nothing.

Targeted Advertising: the Dark Side of Personal Data

Facebook discriminatory targeted advertising
Facebook discriminatory targeted advertising | GIF courtesy of ProPublica

A year later, ProPublica once again bought dozens of discriminatory rental housing ads that exclude specific demographic categories. African Americans, Spanish speakers, Jews, mothers of high school kids, users interested in wheelchair ramps, and other groups couldn’t see the ads.

Targeted ad campaigns not only violated housing rights unethically and unlawfully but job ads too. And if housing ads involve race, employment ads are said to be gender-biased.

In 2018, the American Civil Liberties Union (ACLU) and three women filed charges against Facebook. The lawsuit claimed that Facebook blocked female job seekers from seeing job ads. This was likely a violation of federal laws (Title VII of the Civil Rights Act of 1964).

Then last March, ACLU announced a “historic civil rights settlement” with Facebook. According to ACLU, Facebook agreed to make “sweeping changes” to strengthen its paid ad platform against discrimination in housing, workplace, and credit advertising.

Everything you do online will come back to you as a targeted ad. Every query on Google, every “like” on Facebook, and pretty much every click you make shape the ad you would see.

If advertisers could read the mind of shoppers to know what they would buy at the right moment, this would redesign the online advertising landscape.

And it’s not for lack of trying.

Psychographic advertising aims to target consumers based on their psychological attributes rather than mere demographics. Media companies like the New York Times and ESPN are already running psychographic advertising tests.

They’ve been tracking the mood of people online, making their fill of tailored ads ethically dubious as well. The infamous Cambridge Analytica targeted American voters using psychographic segmentation tools.

Putting Ethics Back Into Advertising: How the “Untargeted” can Revolt?

An international survey revealed that the massive majority of consumers, 83%, believe it is unethical to use their data to personalize ads. Only 24 percent of respondents said that personalization aimed at creating tailored newsfeeds, like what social media do, is ethical.

Facebook first introduced advanced ad targeting in 2009, allowing advertisers to tailor their ads based on language and geographical data of users. The idea made a lot of business sense.

Publishers started limiting their costly advertising campaigns for consumers who can’t get their products or even read their content. Businesses started seeing their ROAS, return on ad spend, increase, and everyone was happy.

Except that now, with the benefit of hindsight, targeted advertising is unethically making a lot of people unhappy.

Large advertising platforms rose to power. Publishers already spent millions on ads. Regulations and policies remain lax.

Out of all these circumstances, the ball has never really left the consumers’ court.

Facebook, Google, and other influential players in the ads industry won’t do something unless the public makes the first move. People can always take an active role in fighting unethical targeted ads by reporting cases and taking legal actions if necessary.

Read More: YouTube To End Targeted Ads For Videos That Appeal To Kids

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Zayan Guedim

Trilingual poet, investigative journalist, and novelist. Zed loves tackling the big existential questions and all-things quantum.

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