What if I told you Facebook allowed advertisers to target users who were interested in Nazis?
On Thursday, the Los Angeles Times reported that Facebook’s target advertising system has been identifying users who are interested in Nazis and its related culture in order to provide paying advertisers with an opportunity to reach them directly. Some of the terms suggested to advertisers to narrow down their targeted audience included “Joseph Goebbels,” “Josef Mengele,” “Heinrich Himmler,” and “National Socialist black metal.” When the LA Times ran tests to promote a white nationalist punk band, “detailed targeting” suggestions became extremely specific. From the report:
First, it recommended “Thor Steinar,” a clothing brand that has been outlawed in the German parliament for its association with neo-Nazism. Then, it recommended “NPD Group,” the name of both a prominent American market research firm and a far-right German political party associated with neo-Nazism. Among the next recommended terms were “Flüchtlinge,” the German word for “refugees,” and “Nationalism.”
“Most of these targeting options are against our policies and should have been caught and removed sooner,” a Facebook spokesperson told the LA Times. “While we have an ongoing review of our targeting options, we clearly need to do more, so we’re taking a broader look at our policies and detection methods.”
It’s been 28 months since ProPublica publicly exposed the fact that Facebook’s targeted ad system allowed housing advertisers to discriminate against users by race. It’s been 15 months since ProPublica publicly exposed the fact that Facebook still allowed housing advertisers to discriminate against users by race. Last August, the U.S. Department of Housing and Urban Development filed an official complaint against Facebook for enabling advertisers to participate in housing discrimination. Three days later, the social network announced that it was removing 5,000 targeting options to “help prevent misuse.”
This isn’t a free speech issue. It’s about Facebook’s incompetence when it comes to following its own rules. It’s also about where Facebook draws the line when it comes to how it makes money. It seems clear that Facebook doesn’t want to be seen as a company that actively earns money from the promotion of white supremacist causes or helping racists organize. But with billions of dollars at its disposal, it just can’t be bothered to effectively parse that list of terms that is so valuable to its advertising business.
Facebook told the LA Times that advertising terms are automatically generated based on user activity and that it does have a system for reviewing terms that violate its own policies. It also said the offending terms were seldom used. I believe it. Greed isn’t really the issue here, it’s Facebook just saying “whoopsy” again and asking everyone else to find its problems while it pulls in record profits.
We asked Facebook why it is so hard for it to do its job, but we did not receive an immediate reply.