Researchers Find Facebook's Ad Targeting Algorithm Is Inherently Biased

Ads for cashier positions in supermarkets reached an 85% female audience, and ads for positions in taxi companies reached a 75% Black audience.

Facebook is in trouble with the US Department of Housing and Urban Development (HUD) for what the department says are discriminatory ad targeting practices. For years, advertisers were allowed by Facebook to target (or avoid targeting) protected groups, like minorities and specific gender identities. But in a new paper, a team of researchers says that Facebook's ad delivery algorithm is inherently biased even when advertisers are trying to reach a large, inclusive audience.

The paper [...] claims that Facebook's ad delivery algorithm is "skewed" to send housing and employment ads to specific demographic groups. Facebook believes that certain jobs, for example, are largely only "relevant" to white men, while others are delivered largely to black women, even when the advertiser is trying to target large, inclusive groups.

"We demonstrate that skewed [ad] delivery occurs on Facebook, due to market and financial optimization effects as well as the platform's own predictions about the 'relevance' of ads to different groups of users," the paper, published in the Arxiv preprint server, found. [...] Critically, we observe significant skew in delivery along gender and racial lines for 'real' ads for employment and housing opportunities despite neutral targeting parameters."

"Our results demonstrate previously unknown mechanisms that can lead to potentially discriminatory ad delivery, even when advertisers set their targeting parameters to be highly inclusive," the paper continued.

Also, Facebook Says White Nationalist Video Doesn't Break New Policy Against White Nationalism, and YouTube Decides to Leave Neo-Nazi Propaganda Online, and water remains wet.

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10 Responses:

  1. mb says:

    I personally despise most advertizing and everything it brings about with a passion, but complaining about discrimination in targeted advertizing (also: insurance, loans) makes little sense to me. These things are inherently discriminatory - "According to what we know about a person, will they fall into the class of people that click the ad/pay the loan back/fall ill/total their car or not?". I saw papers that claimed to remove "bias" from models used for such tasks, and they essentially just blur the issue by disallowing decisions based on easy-to-name attributes like race and gender. Suddenly, we're discriminating against categories like 33 to 47 year olds with exactly 2 kids and names starting with the letter L, living in certain areas, and a hundreds of other opaque combinations like that. Looks a bit better maybe, but in the end it's discrimination based on statistics. It has some really ugly effects ("perpetuation", although I am really tired of this word), but I can't imagine it will go away.

    In comparison, what targeting settings the advertizing company Facebook provides to their their customers seems like a minor detail.

    • jwz says:

      complaining about discrimination in targeted advertizing makes little sense to me

      What part of "it is massively and specifically against the law" is hard to understand?

  2. k3ninho says:

    What's the right way to handle an advertising agency with so much money and so little competence at matching consumers to relevant vendors that they can chug along without a burn rate or market forces driving them out of business?

    If the data is that valuable, why can't they hire the expertise to do this right?
    Do they know if they can do it right -- where are they on the Dunning-Kruger curve?

    K3n.

    • James says:

      Where do you think they are on the Dunning-Kruger curve? It's obvious. They sell ads on a big BBS which got big because they made a corporate identity out of flouting the law. You think they don't know that continuing to flout the law doesn't attract the kind of employees with standards low enough to work with them?

      90% off topic:

  3. Yuck.

    Targeted advertising is… difficult. But thinking for even five minutes should've clued whoever (even a white dude! I'm a white dude!) applied targeted advertising to employment ads should have kept this from happening.

    I've never been fully comfortable with it, but my first job out of college was with a direct [postal] mail company (I guess they're now a subsidiary of IWCO?) and, even leaving aside the "I needed a job" explanation, the justification that smart people I'm still friends with who I met working there have for that sort of targeted advertising (which is really just a scaled- and slowed down version of what Facebook's doing) is that pretending that we get to live in a world devoid of advertising is silly, so why not have the ads each person sees be more likely to be something they'd actually like?

    This obviously runs afoul of labor law if what you're advertising is jobs. I mean, it might even be true (although I kinda doubt it) that in a complete vacuum 85% of the people who want jobs as cashiers identify as female and 75% of the people who want jobs driving cabs identify as "Black", but this is still turbo not okay.

    Aside: does anybody really want either job?

    • Tim says:

      Aside: does anybody really want either job?

      Yes: probably a minority actually want them, but both can be sociable, may allow part-time work (e.g. to fit around childcare), allow you to disengage entirely from work when you are not working (huge advantage over many middle-income jobs right there).

      • All fair and accurate points. Thank you!

        (In my limited experience of just a couple of friends who've driven for Uber/Lyft: both got sick of it very quickly. One moved to a more traditional car service, where he got job security and better pay, and the other, a chef by trade, was just doing it to fill a gap between leaving a restaurant job and taking a job running the catering department for food service at a large university. But "2" is very obviously not a representative sample set.)

        • Oh, wait, I context-switched poorly.

          I've got a bunch of friends (north of 20) who've worked some kind of "retail" that resembles "cashier". They, every one of them, hated it and got something they liked better, even for less money, as quickly as they could.

          I've also got one other friend who drove a yellow cab in NYC for a shade over a year, so that he'd have some money while he proceeded with his acting/stand-up/sketch comedy real career. It was certainly good for material for the stand-up comedy chunk. He seems to be doing Just Fine in the (burgeoning?) podcast… industry?

  4. Leonardo Herrera says:

    Ads get tailored to what I do. The outcome may be racist, yes.

    This reminds me of Gabriel Iglesias' story about a racist prank he committed against a black friend: he crafted a gift basket, purposely sent by the local KKK. The black friend was delighted by everything in it, until he read the card that came with it.

    I don't have a point, by the way. I really haven't thought about this, so I haven't formed an opinion.

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