Honestly, guys, this shouldn’t be so hard.
With billions of dollars, thousands of employees, and some of the finest engineering minds on the planet, Facebook just can’t seem to figure out how to stop profiting from advertising categories that don’t comply with its advertising principles. And a new damning discovery was just made by The Intercept.
This week, the outlet attempted to promote two articles on Facebook and discovered a “detailed targeting” category for pushing ads to users who have an interest in “white genocide conspiracy theory.” This was a category that Facebook’s system had identified on its own, according to the company, and offered among its predefined suggestions for advertisers. Choosing it would serve an ad to a group it said consisted of 168,000 users.
While Facebook actively offering a convenient way to help spread a racist myth is shocking enough, The Intercept made it really easy for the social network to flag its ads and realize this isn’t a good way to use the platform. Ad campaigns of Facebook have to be approved, and this one was specifically named “White Supremacy — Test.” Still, the ads made it through the approval process.
When contacted by Gizmodo, a Facebook spokesperson told us, “This targeting option has been removed, and we’ve taken down these ads. It’s against our ads principles and never should have been in our system to begin with. We deeply apologize for this error.”
The company confirmed that the term made it through its review process in August and characterized the approval as a mistake. Facebook told The Intercept that this targeting technically didn’t violate its advertising policies “because it was based on a category Facebook itself created,” as the outlet described the situation. Facebook also confirmed that a mix of algorithmic and human review of suggested categories is used but the final decisions on “newly added interests” are made by a human.
The concept of “white genocide” is a myth used by white supremacists and garden-variety racists around the world to justify bigotry. In America, some racists consider population trends toward minorities outnumbering white people in the coming years as a form of white genocide. That kind of argument can be heard from someone as prominent as Congressman Steve King who once tweeted, “culture and demographics are our destiny. We can’t restore our civilization with somebody else’s babies.” He argued that he wasn’t talking about race and one of his strongest defenders in the controversy was David Duke, the former grand wizard of the Ku Klux Klan.
Citing false reports about a “white genocide” in South Africa in which white farmers are being murdered and having their land stolen has become a favored practice for Fox News star Tucker Carlson. And the blog he founded, The Daily Caller, was one of Facebook’s suggestions for The Intercept to add to its “White Supremacy” campaign—as was “South Africa.”
The problem isn’t just that Facebook was potentially giving Nazis a helping hand, it’s that the company just seems to be so inept at setting policies and training its machines and humans. ProPublica has previously found Facebook enabling advertisers to target “Jew Haters” and to deliberately discriminate based on race for housing listings—a practice that’s illegal. A Facebook spokesperson told Gizmodo that the “white genocide conspiracy theory” category was primarily used “reasonably.” They cited examples like a University lecture on America’s conspiracy culture. They also reminded us that it removed 5,000 problematic targeting options that didn’t meet its standards in August. That point would feel more worthy of praise if not for the fact that it managed let 5,000 problematic targeting options sneak their way into the system.
Given the fact that Facebook has been directly implicated in helping fuel mob violence and ethnic cleansing in places like Myanmar, Sri Lanka, and India, one would think that “genocide” would be a pretty easy word to add to the list of items that could use a little extra attention. But I’m no brilliant engineer.
In other news, “kill all Jews” was trending on Twitter today, so everyone’s doing a great job.