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Civil rights groups, lawmakers, and journalists have long warned Facebook about discrimination on its advertising platform. But their concerns, as well as Facebook’s responses, have focused primarily on ad targeting, the way businesses choose what kind of people they want to see their ads. A new study from researchers at Northeastern University, University of Southern California, and the nonprofit Upturn finds ad delivery—the Facebook algorithms that decide exactly which users see those ads—may be just as important.
Even when companies choose to show their ads to inclusive audiences, the researchers wrote, Facebook sometimes delivers them “primarily to a skewed subgroup of the advertiser’s selected audience, an outcome that the advertiser may not have intended or be aware of.” For example, job ads targeted to both men and women might still be seen by significantly more men.
The study, which has not yet been peer-reviewed, indicates that Facebook’s automated advertising system—which earns the company tens of billions of dollars in revenue each year—may be breaking civil rights laws that protect against advertising discrimination for things like jobs and housing. The issue is with Facebook itself, not with the way businesses use its platform. Facebook did not return a request for comment, but the company has not disputed the researchers’ findings in statements to other publications.
Discrimination in ad targeting has been an issue at Facebook for years. In 2016, ProPublica found businesses could exclude people from seeing housing ads based on based on characteristics like race, an apparent violation of