It’s about to get a harder to target certain groups on Facebook. For society, that’s a good thing. For advertisers, not so much.
On Tuesday, Meta, Facebook’s parent company, announced that it would remove detailed targeting options that “relate to topics people may perceive as sensitive” beginning on Jan. 19, 2022. The news is a noteworthy change to Meta’s golden goose, its advertising business, which accounted for nearly 98% of its global revenue in 2020, according to Statista.
Graham Mudd, Meta’s vice president of marketing for ads, said the change was being made to in response to concerns from civil rights experts and policy makers over advertisers who were abusing the targeting options Facebook provided. This isn’t the first time Meta has removed targeting options; it removed 5,000 options to prevent misuse in 2018.
Mudd explained that examples of sensitive topics included causes, organizations, or public figures related to health, race or ethnicity, political affiliation, religion, and sexual orientation. Specific examples included topics like “Lung cancer awareness day,” “LBGT culture,” and “Jewish holidays,” among others.
He stressed that the targeting options affected by the company’s policy change were not based on users’ physical characteristics or personal attributes. Instead, these options consider people’s interactions with content on Meta products, such as Facebook, Instagram, and Messenger.
“The decision to remove these Detailed Targeting options was not easy and we know this change may negatively impact some businesses and organizations,” Mudd said. “Some of our advertising partners have expressed concerns about these targeting options going away because of their ability to help generate positive societal change, while others understand the decision to remove them.”
Some digital ad-buying experts have said that this will negatively impact nonprofit and public affairs groups, which rely on ad targeting for fundraising, the New York Times reported.
Facebook has come under fire in recent years for allowing advertisers to use its platform to discriminate against certain demographic groups or incite violence.
Back in 2017, ProPublica found that Facebook was allowing ad targeting to users who expressed interest in abhorrent anti-Semitic topics such as, “Jew hater,” “How to burn jews,” and “History of ‘why jews ruin the world.’” These topics were created by an algorithm, not by people.
Meanwhile, in 2019, the Equal Employment Opportunity Commission, or EEOC, ruled that seven companies, including big wigs like Capital One and Edward Jones, had used Facebook to discriminate against women and elderly workers. The companies in question had used Facebook to place job ads directed at young men, which meant that women and people older than 55 years old couldn’t see them.
The EEOC ruled that the job ads were a violation of the Civil Rights Act and the Age Discrimination in Employment Act.
More recently, Facebook raised alarm bells when Buzzfeed found that it was running ads for body armor, gun holsters, and other military gear next to posts with misinformation about the 2020 presidential election and news about the deadly riot at the Capitol on Jan. 6. The ads were served to people that followed extremist content on Facebook. Days after the outlet reported the news, Facebook said it was pausing ads that promote weapons accessories and protective equipment until after President Joe Biden’s inauguration.
Meta’s new policy change doesn’t mean that advertisers can’t target people on the company’s platforms at all, though. Mudd, Meta’s ad marketing vice president, said the company was committed to helping small businesses, nonprofits, and advocacy groups reach their audiences, and noted that they still had tools available to them.
These groups can, for example, use a feature called “Engagement Custom Audiences” to reach people who have already liked their page or watched their videos, Mudd pointed out. Entities can also use Engagement Custom Audiences to create a lookalike audience, or an audience that shares similar characteristics to your core audience. Location targeting, gender and age targeting, and companies’ own email lists are still options, among others.
Besides limits on targeting, Meta also announced that it would be giving users more control and allow them to see fewer ads of certain types of content, such as gambling and weight loss.