Facebook Enabled Ads Targeting Anti-Semites

Sep 15, 2017
Originally published on September 15, 2017 4:17 pm
Copyright 2017 NPR. To see more, visit http://www.npr.org/.


Two of the tech companies that rule our world are in the news this morning, Facebook and Google. And we'll get to Google in a moment. But first, Facebook - according to new investigative reporting from ProPublica, Facebook is taking money to connect advertisers with anti-Semites. For more, let's bring in NPR's Aarti Shahani. She joins us via Skype.

Hey, Aarti.


MARTIN: So lay out exactly what ProPublica did and what they found.

SHAHANI: So ProPublica did something really simple and with clever reporting. The official line from Facebook is, hate speech is in violation of our community standards, and we don't tolerate it. The reality is Facebook is creating tools to sell it. ProPublica decided to go into Facebook, not as a regular user but into the advertising section. It's automated online. They didn't call a customer service line. And they selected terms like, we want to target ads to people who express interest in Jew hater and how to burn Jews.

MARTIN: Those exact phrases?

SHAHANI: Yes. Those exact phrases.


SHAHANI: And Facebook accepted their money, $30, and placed the ad, which in this case wasn't anti-Semitic material. It was just a link to a news article. Then ProPublica called Facebook and said, (laughter) yeah, you guys are letting us target to anti-Semitic subgroups. Those ad terms have since disappeared from the platform. And Facebook says they weren't common or widespread.

MARTIN: But still, it seems like a big oversight on their part.

SHAHANI: Yeah, absolutely. You know, and think of it this way. Facebook's business is based on letting advertisers do exactly what ProPublica did, which is targeting the most personal, even insidious parts of ourselves. OK? There's an industry term for this. It's called psychographic marketing. In the old days, if you were placing ads, you relied on demographics. But with psychographics, you go deeper. You don't just advertise to, say, men in Baltimore, age 19 to 35, who are black. You can add interests, like cop killer. And if Facebook finds and zaps that term, you pick a proxy - you know, say, a band or a movie that's all about mowing down cops.

MARTIN: Wow. That is a problem with a - I imagine, a difficult solution, if any. I mean, how do you fix that?

SHAHANI: Yeah. There's not a silver bullet here. You know, Facebook has been focused on growth - on hypergrowth. Every quarter, the CEO, Mark Zuckerberg, gets on a quarterly earnings call and shares these dazzling numbers about how much their mobile advertising business has grown. And, you know, something I think about is, what if Zuckerberg also reported on an error rate or a harm rate, you know, just like in the 20th-century industry, you might see disclosures around carbon emissions. What if Facebook and other data companies had to create and report a kind of harm metric, you know, for hate speech, calls to violence, Russian influence on U.S. elections? You know, that doesn't exist. I'm just thinking out loud here.


SHAHANI: Facebook, by the way, pays for NPR's video content, some of it.

MARTIN: So before we let you go, Google is also facing some hot water over some allegations about hiring or paying. What's going on?

SHAHANI: Yeah. On Thursday, plaintiffs filed a class-action lawsuit in California. It's on behalf of all women employed by Google in the state over the last four years. And the claim is Google is breaking the law, labor laws, by paying women less than men for substantially similar work.

MARTIN: All right. NPR's Aarti Shahani reporting on two controversies facing a couple of big tech giants, Facebook and Google, this morning.

Thanks so much, Aarti.

SHAHANI: Thank you.

[EDITOR'S NOTE: We heard back from a lot of listeners on this story. Many complained about the example we gave to portray the dangerous search terms used by some Facebook advertisers that use targeted ads. The intent of the example was to illustrate how online advertisers searched extreme subgroups. We didn't mean to either offend anyone or perpetuate a stereotype; the specific example we used was provided by a leading online marketer that uses Facebook tools. We should have made that clearer during the conversation.]

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