For better or worse, Facebook’s ad platform has made it easier than ever to reach niche audiences. The positives of that have been apparent to advertisers for years, but now the downsides are starting to show.
Specifically, until this week marketers could use anti-Semitic terms and hate speech to reach Nazis and white supremacists via Facebook ads. An investigation by ProPublica revealed that advertisers could target people who list “NaziParty” as their employer or are interested in topics including “jew hater,” “how to burn jews,” and “history of ‘why jews ruin the world'” through promoted posts.
Facebook removed the ad categories after the publication contacted the social network. Facebook claims the categories were generated by information users entered when filling out their profiles. For instance, a Facebook user may have added the description “Jew hater” to his or her profile, and that term would then appear to advertisers as a potential category of users to which ads could be directed.
“We’ve removed the associated targeting fields in question,” said Rob Leathern, a product management director at Facebook said in a statement. “We know we have more work to do, so we’re also building new guardrails in our product and review processes to prevent other issues like this from happening in the future.”
The revelation comes after Facebook has promised to get tougher on hate speech in advertising. But it’s more than just an embarrassing slip for one of the world’s largest advertising platforms. Last week the social network revealed that a Russia-based organization spent big on divisive ads during the 2016 presidential campaign. The company received more than $100,000 to spread polarizing messages on topics that included immigration, race, and gay rights.
In revealing the Russia-based ads, Facebook noted that the messages were not specifically linked to any one candidate. However, a network of more than 1 million real and fake accounts gamed Facebook’s system to influence the social network with more than 100 million ‘likes.’ This ‘collusion network’ may have been used to boost certain posts and accounts, say researchers. And this information came to light as Facebook also acknowledged that Russian-connected accounts used the social networking site to organize anti-immigrant rallies last year.
It’s becoming clearer by the day that a lot needs to be done to fix Facebook before the 2020 presidential campaign. But as ProPublica outlines in its investigation, problems will persist. For instance, though these anti-Semitic niche audiences were small, if advertisers target interests like “Second Amendment” they can reach larger audiences that encompass the smaller groups. In other words, despite Facebook’s changes, advertisers can capture these eyeballs. They just need to use a bigger net.
Correction: This story has been edited from its original version which inaccurately noted that Facebook claimed the categories were created by an algorithm, not a person. Facebook has since clarified, instead saying the categories were generated by information users entered when filling out their profiles on its social network.