Does Facebook racially profile you to serve you more relevant ads? The company tells Ars Technica that it doesn’t engage in racial profiling but it’s hard to see another way to describe its new advertising platform that groups users into “ethnic affinities.”
So here’s how it works: Facebook admits that it builds ethnic profiles for users but it doesn’t do so based on census data, your name, your photos, or your private information. That said, if it sees that you like NPR, craft beer and farmers markets, then you’ll get categorized in an affinity group for white urban liberals. Or if you like hip-hop and are part of groups online like BlackLivesMatter, Facebook will say you have an affinity for black American culture.
“They like African-American content,” one Facebook representative explained to Ars. “But we cannot and do not say to advertisers that they are ethnically black. Facebook does not have a way for people to self-identify by race or ethnicity on the platform.”
Sure, except making these profiles still involves using data to see what different ethnic groups are typically interested in. So while being white, black or Latino doesn’t guarantee you’ll get ads targeted to your ethnicity, Facebook nonetheless creates advertising categories based around those ethnic stereotypes.
If there’s any comfort here, it’s that Facebook’s system has divided these broad ethnic groups into several different subgroups whose ads are completely separate from each other. So if you really love Miles Davis and John Coltrane, that doesn’t mean you’re going to get served ads for Kendrick Lamar and Kanye West albums just because all four are black musicians.
You can read more about how this profiling system works at this link.