On Thursday, ProPublica released a report on Facebook’s ad targeting algorithm, which allows people to establish anti-Semitic campaigns targeted as groups interested in “how to burn jews” or the “history of ‘why jews ruin the world’”. “Jew hater” was also a field of study according to the social network.
The nonprofit journalism organization has previously been at the center of similar controversies surrounding Facebook as a platform. Last year, it uncovered that it could target ads in a way that discriminated certain ethnic groups, which led to policy reviews and calls for action even by Congress.
As recently as last week, Facebook came to be again at the center of the spotlight once an internal investigation discovered it had sold $100,000 worth of political ads to Russia-linked bodies. The campaigns themselves didn’t favor any of the two candidates but sought to spark controversy by fueling debates on hot topics.
Totally crazy. Ad categories on Facebook:
– History of "why jews ruin the world,"
– How to burn jews
– Nazi partyhttps://t.co/2xpRyCYao4 pic.twitter.com/gLQZKW9uhL
— Alex Kantrowitz (@Kantrowitz) September 14, 2017
Facebook’s anti-Semitic algorithm might be out of control
ProPublica notes that, in a past investigation, it managed to collect tens of thousands of ad categories and that none of them were racist or anti-Semitic in a straightforward manner. Some of them could be considered somewhat discriminatory, but nothing as bad as “Jew hater.”
The organization highlights that Facebook manages its ad business through automation, meaning that algorithms take care of everything they can possibly take care of. Among those tasks, there is the responsibility of approving and recommending ad categories for campaigns.
At the time of ProPublica’s preliminary research, it was inferred that ad categories came to be as a result of people’s listed interests on their profile pages. It seems that concept has expanded enough to include interests as specific as “history of ‘why jews ruin the world’,” even if only one person has ever listed it.
We found dog fighting categorized as a "sport" and arson as a "hobby" in early 2016 https://t.co/GBQSPrPO8r
— Helen Havlak (@anotherhelen) September 14, 2017
Facebook promises to revise its ad platform… Again
Of course, this not being the first time something like this has happened; Facebook has unfortunately developed a sense of what to say in these situations already. As expected, representatives have pledged to “prevent other issues like this from happening in the future” by implementing tighter controls and processes.
However, when you have consolidated groups in the thousands interested in the Nazi Party, the SS, and the National Democratic Party of Germany, you have a different problem entirely.
This only worsens when you factor in the automated algorithm that makes suggestions to link associated groups so you have a discrimination pool large enough to make up the audience of a campaign.
Considering all these elements, Facebook might soon have to draw a clearer line between not allowing hate speech on and not discriminating groups of people regardless of their thoughts and beliefs. Both the social network and the advertising platform will have to deal with this more head-on going forward.