Google and Facebook Face Criticism for Ads Targeting Racist Sentiments

But the potential misuse of those tools has become a national concern in the past year, particularly after Facebook disclosed last week that fake accounts based in Russia had purchased more than $100,000 worth of ads on divisive issues in the lead-up to the presidential election.

“It’s shocking because it’s illustrating the degree of targeting that’s possible,” said Eli Pariser, the author of “The Filter Bubble: How the New Personalized Web Is Changing What We Read and How We Think.” “But I think the critical piece of context is this is happening when we know that a foreign country used targeted Facebook ads to influence opinion around an election.”

He added: “Before all of this, you could see the rise of targeted advertising, you could see the rise of social politics, but the conjunction of the two in this way feels new.”

Facebook’s self-service ad-buying platform allowed advertisers to direct ads to the news feeds of about 2,300 people who said they were interested in anti-Semitic subjects, according to the article by ProPublica. Facebook’s algorithms automatically generated the categories from users’ profiles.

Reporters from ProPublica tested Facebook advertising categories to see whether they could buy ads aimed at people who expressed interest in topics like “Jew hater,” “How to burn jews,” and “History of ‘why jews ruin the world.’” The reporters paid $30 to promote ProPublica posts to the people affiliated with the anti-Semitic categories to ensure they were real options, according to the investigation, which noted that Facebook had approved the posts within 15 minutes.


Some of the categories that appear in Facebook’s ad-targeting tool, pictured here, have come under fire.

Facebook said in a statement that users had entered the terms under the “employer” or “education” fields on their profiles. Doing so violated the company’s policies, the company said, and led to their appearance on the ad-buying tool.

The company said it would remove targeting by such self-reported fields “until we have the right processes in place to help prevent this issue.” It added that “hate speech and discriminatory advertising have no place on our platform.”

After the ProPublica report, BuzzFeed conducted a similar test on Google, where ads are purchased based on potential search terms. The site reported that upon

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