Is California Age Discrimination Hard-Wired in Facebook Ads?

Facebook recently vowed to rewrite its systems to ensure that employment discrimination wasn’t baked into its advertising platform, excluding workers on the basis of federally-protected classes like race, gender, age, religion and nationality. But there is evidence to suggest that whatever the company’s efforts, the type of discrimination that’s been occurring will continue.

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A recent study published by computer science experts at the University of Southern California, Northeastern University and a non-profit think-tank called Upturn analyzed the algorithms responsible for ascertaining which users see which ads. In other words, where previous criticism of the social media giant largely focused on its targeting (the audience ad buyers sought to reach), these researchers looked at the algorithms responsible for advertisement delivery (who those ads were ultimately going to reach).

The findings, “Discrimination through optimization: How Facebook’s ad delivery can lead to skewed outcomes,” opines that ad delivery could be just as important. The study found that even when firms tried to select an ad strategy that would be inclusive, the algorithms used by Facebook for targeted ads still ended up skewing the end recipients in certain directions – including in ways the employer/ad placement company may not have been aware.

Target Audience v. Recipient Audience

For example, an ad for employment might be targeted toward both women and men, yet still be seen more by men. Sometimes, those disparities were significant.

In fairness, our Los Angeles discrimination lawyers understand this analysis hasn’t been peer-reviewed, but it does offer an insightful glimpse into the practices of one of the largest platforms globally where people connect with employers/employees.

Discriminatory job advertisements are nothing new – even before Facebook. The difference with digital platforms is that they were designed to target certain audiences for SEO (search engine optimization) reasons. These systems are designed with algorithms based on what’s known about readership demographics to target audiences most likely to click. Facebook has spent a great deal of money on this type of technology, and it’s the same used distribution of online ads, employment or otherwise.

As your Los Angeles employment attorney can explain, that doesn’t make it any less illegal.

Targeted Ads on Social Media Problematic

Three years ago, ProPublica reported evidence of widespread discrimination on the basis of characteristics such as age, race and gender. This violates federal law. The social media giant settled five lawsuits filed by civil rights organizations alleging employers, property owners and credit/ financial agencies were able to conceal these ads from groups of specified individuals unlawfully. Facebook has said it will no longer give advertisers free reign to target these protected groups, as outlined in both state and federal laws.

Still, none of that addresses what researchers found in this most recent analysis. Study authors ran advertisements for at least four different generic jobs in a single state, and discovered:

  • lumber industry jobs were shown to users 70 percent male, 90 percent white
  • janitor jobs were shown to individuals who were 75 percent black, 65 percent female
  • grocery store clerk jobs were shown to those 85 percent women
  • taxi jobs were shown to those 85 percent black

This was despite advertising having roughly the same budget and targeting. Same was true in housing, where certain listing were shown to 65 percent black audiences while others shown to 85 percent white.

Facebook does not make companies aware of certain biographical data of recipients, like their race or gender. However, it does give them information about their general location. Los Angeles employment discrimination attorneys know this matters because (after decades of discrimination in certain regions) it means both employers and the social media company are able to tailor their message.

Facebook doesn’t tell businesses the race of people who see their ads, but it does provide the general area where they are located. In order to create a proxy for race, the researchers used hundreds of thousands of public voting records from North Carolina, which include the voter’s address, phone number, and their stated race. Using the records, they targeted ads to black voters in one part of the state and white voters in another; when looking at Facebook’s reporting tools, they could then assume the users’ race based on where they lived. A few Zipcode searches and employers can still get timely, relevant data of  who their ads reached.

Further, scientists looked at whether Facebook automatically scans ads to see whether they might  apply stereotpyical generalizations to a certain race or gender. They found even though an actual human being was not, the computers still were.

Either way, state and federal discrimination laws must be respected. L.A. employer discrimination lawyers know that this will be an area of law on which we will maintain a keen eye.

Contact the employment attorneys at Nassiri Law Group, practicing in Orange County, Riverside and Los Angeles. Call 714-937-2020.

Additional Resources:

FACEBOOK’S AD SYSTEM MIGHT BE HARD-CODED FOR DISCRIMINATION, April 8, 2019, April 8, 2019, Wired.com

More Bog Entries:

Facebook Vows to Block Discriminatory Employment Advertisements, Feb. 15, 2019, Los Angeles Employment Attorney Bloh