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Thursday, March 21, 2019

Reprinted with permission from ProPublica.

Want to market Nazi memorabilia, or recruit marchers for a far-right rally? Facebook’s self-service ad-buying platform had the right audience for you.

Until this week, when we asked Facebook about it, the world’s largest social network enabled advertisers to direct their pitches to the news feeds of almost 2,300 people who expressed interest in the topics of “Jew hater,” “How to burn jews,” or, “History of ‘why jews ruin the world.’”

To test if these ad categories were real, we paid $30 to target those groups with three “promoted posts” — in which a ProPublica article or post was displayed in their news feeds. Facebook approved all three ads within 15 minutes.

After we contacted Facebook, it removed the anti-Semitic categories — which were created by an algorithm rather than by people — and said it would explore ways to fix the problem, such as limiting the number of categories available or scrutinizing them before they are displayed to buyers.

“There are times where content is surfaced on our platform that violates our standards,” said Rob Leathern, product management director at Facebook. “In this case, we’ve removed the associated targeting fields in question. We know we have more work to do, so we’re also building new guardrails in our product and review processes to prevent other issues like this from happening in the future.”

Facebook’s advertising has become a focus of national attention since it disclosed last week that it had discovered $100,000 worth of ads placed during the 2016 presidential election season by “inauthentic” accounts that appeared to be affiliated with Russia.

Like many tech companies, Facebook has long taken a hands off approach to its advertising business. Unlike traditional media companies that select the audiences they offer advertisers, Facebook generates its ad categories automatically based both on what users explicitly share with Facebook and what they implicitly convey through their online activity.

Traditionally, tech companies have contended that it’s not their role to censor the Internet or to discourage legitimate political expression. In the wake of the violent protests in Charlottesville by right-wing groups that included self-described Nazis, Facebook and other tech companies vowed to strengthen their monitoring of hate speech.

Facebook CEO Mark Zuckerberg wrote at the time that “there is no place for hate in our community,” and pledged to keep a closer eye on hateful posts and threats of violence on Facebook. “It’s a disgrace that we still need to say that neo-Nazis and white supremacists are wrong — as if this is somehow not obvious,” he wrote.

But Facebook apparently did not intensify its scrutiny of its ad buying platform. In all likelihood, the ad categories that we spotted were automatically generated because people had listed those anti-Semitic themes on their Facebook profiles as an interest, an employer or a “field of study.” Facebook’s algorithm automatically transforms people’s declared interests into advertising categories.

Here is a screenshot of our ad buying process on the company’s advertising portal:

This is not the first controversy over Facebook’s ad categories. Last year, ProPublica was able to block an ad that we bought in Facebook’s housing categories from being shown to African-Americans, Hispanics and Asian-Americans, raising the question of whether such ad targeting violated laws against discrimination in housing advertising. After ProPublica’s article appeared, Facebook built a system that it said would prevent such ads from being approved.

Last year, ProPublica also collected a list of the advertising categories Facebook was providing to advertisers. We downloaded more than 29,000 ad categories from Facebook’s ad system — and found categories ranging from an interest in “Hungarian sausages” to “People in households that have an estimated household income of between $100K and $125K.”

At that time, we did not find any anti-Semitic categories, but we do not know if we captured all of Facebook’s possible ad categories, or if these categories were added later. A Facebook spokesman didn’t respond to a question about when the categories were introduced.

Last week, acting on a tip, we logged into Facebook’s automated ad system to see if “Jew hater” was really an ad category. We found it, but discovered that the category — with only 2,274 people in it — was too small for Facebook to allow us to buy an ad pegged only to Jew haters.

Facebook’s automated system suggested “Second Amendment” as an additional category that would boost our audience size to 119,000 people, presumably because its system had correlated gun enthusiasts with anti-Semites.

Instead, we chose additional categories that popped up when we typed in “jew h”: “How to burn Jews,” and “History of ‘why jews ruin the world.’” Then we added a category that Facebook suggested when we typed in “Hitler”: a category called “Hitler did nothing wrong.” All were described as “fields of study.”

These ad categories were tiny. Only two people were listed as the audience size for “how to burn jews,” and just one for “History of ‘why jews ruin the world.’”Another 15 people comprised the viewership for “Hitler did nothing wrong.”

Facebook’s automated system told us that we still didn’t have a large enough audience to make a purchase. So we added “German Schutzstaffel,” commonly known as the Nazi SS, and the “Nazi Party,” which were both described to advertisers as groups of “employers.” Their audiences were larger: 3,194 for the SS and 2,449 for Nazi Party.

Still, Facebook said we needed more — so we added people with an interest in the National Democratic Party of Germany, a far-right, ultranationalist political party, with its much larger viewership of 194,600.

Once we had our audience, we submitted our ad — which promoted an unrelated ProPublica news article. Within 15 minutes, Facebook approved our ad, with one change. In its approval screen, Facebook described the ad targeting category “Jew hater” as “Antysemityzm,” the Polish word for anti-Semitism. Just to make sure it was referring to the same category, we bought two additional ads using the term “Jew hater” in combination with other termsBoth times, Facebook changed the ad targeting category “Jew hater” to “Antisemityzm” in its approval.

Here is one of our approved ads from Facebook:

A few days later, Facebook sent us the results of our campaigns. Our three ads reached 5,897 people, generating 101 clicks, and 13 “engagements” — which could be a “like” a “share” or a comment on a post.

Since we contacted Facebook, most of the anti-Semitic categories have disappeared.

Facebook spokesman Joe Osborne said that they didn’t appear to have been widely used. “We have looked at the use of these audiences and campaigns and it’s not common or widespread,” he said.

We looked for analogous advertising categories for other religions, such as “Muslim haters.” Facebook didn’t have them.

Update, Sept. 14, 2017: This story has been updated to include the Facebook spokesman’s name.

 

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7 responses to “Facebook Enabled Advertisers To Reach ‘Jew Haters’”

  1. “Free Market System”, “Freedom of Speech”, Capitalism, Laissez Faire—all lovely concepts, except for a gaping hole and a predictable short-coming in conception.
    And that is a near total absence of a motivation to practice moral restraint, utilizing runaway greed as a fuel, and absolutely no insight into the necessity of designing software and running a society based on spiritual principles.
    Thus we find Facebook totally bereft of a vision of spirituality when it designed its flagship product used across the globe. By promoting a practice whose core principle is acquisition of wealth at whatever cost, with no moral restraints, Facebook has morphed quickly into a monster which encourages the abuses of Facebook. By now one would have expected the company, in light of events in 2016, to have gone into overdrive to dismantle this Machiavellian ethos provided via social media. But since the wealth accrued through helter skelter advertising to make social media available is so enormous, there is little if any motivation to correct the problem.
    And the “hipness” associated with the latest gadget is so alluring and convenient for communicating that certain youth growing up with no concept of responsibility and morality think it is cool to be obnoxious and officious.

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  2. dpaano says:

    I completely swore off any social media websites; i.e., Facebook, Twitter, etc. I don’t have the time or energy to deal with any of them. If I want to know what someone is doing over the week-end, I’ll give them a call. I don’t need to hear their hour-by-hour dissertations of their lives….it gets pretty boring. It’s the same thing with texting….if you’ve got time to text someone, you’ve got time to stop and give them a call!! All these websites are ludicrous. The only website I deal with is NM and Daily KOS.

    • This culture of “Connectedness” is a tar pit of sorts if one doesn’t have a sense of well-being and restraint. When I started reading Sherry Turkle’s book, “Alone Together”, several weeks ago, I was already aware of the strong allure social media, robotics, and Tablets have on children, youth, and adults. I just couldn’t see myself being occupied with looking at a screen constantly to see texts and respond to such. But then I made a conscious effort to purchase a smartphone because of some of its features, and the ease of sending msgs and video to friends in Oman who’re already immersed in this new online culture.

      While there, my friend showed me the app, “Whatsapp”, I installed it, and now I’m in daily connection with them. But now I have to carefully control this so that I don’t offend them when deciding to go into my “quiet” period.

      Each page of Sherry’s book makes me stop and think of the toll taken on the lives of young adults and youth she interviewed, who’re so absorbed with social media that they feel compelled to text while driving though her respondents tell her that they know its wrong. This is on my mind as I start using this medium.

  3. johninPCFL says:

    And one of the biggest sites is Breitbart.

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