The article was published by ProPublica, which bills itself as “an independent, non-profit newsroom that produces investigative journalism in the public interest.”

The organization published the article after it showed how Facebook’s ethnic affinity targeting options could potentially be used by Facebook marketers in a discriminatory manner.

Here’s what marketers need to know about those options, and the controversy that’s swirling around them.

Ethnic Affinities don’t directly correspond to race

Facebook’s Ethnic Affinity filter includes options like “African-American,” “Asian-American” and “Hispanic” but it does not directly allow marketers to target or exclude users based on race.

Instead, users can be assigned to an Ethnic Affinity category based on their behavior on the social network, such as the Facebook Pages they like.

While in some cases this effectively acts as a proxy for race-based targeting, Facebook does not ask users to identify their race.

This targeting has been around for years

Despite the fact that ProPublica’s article has sparked debate and discussion about it, Facebook’s Ethnic Affinity targeting isn’t new.

Marketers on Facebook were first given the ability to target the Hispanic ethnic affinity group two years ago.

Facebook isn’t the only company offering this kind of targeting

Christian Martinez, Facebook’s head of multicultural sales, noted in a blog post addressing the controversy: “Most of the leading companies in the online ad space offer multicultural advertising options.”

There are arguably legitimate uses of Ethnic Affinity targeting

Facebook’s Martinez suggests that Ethnic Affinity targeting is beneficial to both marketers and the people they’re trying to reach.

Living in the US, most of the advertising that I see in traditional media is targeted to people in the majority — people who don’t look like me, who don’t speak Spanish, and who may not share my experience. The experience of ads constantly reminding you that you’re different from the majority is incredibly marginalizing, and it’s not right. 

He offers several examples of how Ethnic Affinity can address this.

Advertisers may…focus on reaching any group directly. For example, a nonprofit that’s hosting a career fair for the Hispanic community can use Facebook ads to reach people who have an interest in that community. And a merchant selling hair care products that are designed for black women can reach people who are most likely to want its products.

That merchant also may want to exclude other ethnicities for whom their hair care products are not relevant — this is a process known in the ad industry as “exclusion targeting.”

This prevents audiences for community-specific ads from seeing a generic ad targeted to a large group and helps avoid the offensive outcome that traditional advertising can often create for people in the minority.

Ethnic Affinity targeting has been used to good effect

While ProPublica’s article highlights the potential for abuse and even illegal usage of Ethnic Affinity targeting, there are case studies demonstrating that it can be used to good effect to craft messages that are more likely to appeal to specific audiences.

For example, movie studio Universal used it to create different ads for different groups to promote the movie, Straight Outta Compton, which was a box-office hit.

Facebook’s policies forbid discrimination

Obviously, there is the potential for Ethnic Affinity targeting to be abused or even used illegally.

For example, in the US, the Fair Housing Act of 1968 makes it illegal “to make, print, or publish, or cause to be made, printed, or published any notice, statement, or advertisement, with respect to the sale or rental of a dwelling that indicates any preference, limitation, or discrimination based on race, color, religion, sex, handicap, familial status, or national origin.”

According to Steve Satterfield, a privacy and public policy manager at Facebook, “Our policies prohibit using our targeting options to discriminate, and they require compliance with the law. We take prompt enforcement action when we determine that ads violate our policies.”

As part of its investigation, ProPublica placed an ad in Facebook’s housing category for a housing forum event and it excluded African-Americans, Asian-Americans and Hispanics.

The ad was approved, which ProPublica seemed to suggest proved that Facebook isn’t effectively policing potentially discriminatory ads.

But as numerous observers have pointed out, ProPublica’s ad was for an event at which housing topics were to be discussed; it was not an ad for housing itself, so it is unclear that the rules of the Fair Housing Act of 1968 applied to it in the first place.

Facebook is making one change

According to ProPublica, Facebook says it will move the Ethnic Affinity targeting option out of the Demographics section it is currently in to another, as-yet-specific section.

Marketers are responsible for compliance with the law

There is no doubt that Facebook should be vigilant about abuses of its targeting capabilities, but ultimately, marketers are responsible for compliance with applicable laws.

Businesses in highly-regulated markets, such as financial services, cannot and should not expect Facebook and ad platforms to serve as their legal compliance teams.

Instead, they should demand that their in-house marketers and external agents understand laws applicable to their digital marketing campaigns and ensure that these laws are followed.

For more on this topic, read: