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But our tests showed a significant lapse in the company’s monitoring of the rental market.
Last week, ProPublica bought dozens of rental housing ads on Facebook, but asked that they not be shown to certain categories of users, such as African Americans, mothers of high school kids, people interested in wheelchair ramps, Jews, expats from Argentina and Spanish speakers.
All of these groups are protected under the federal Fair Housing Act, which makes it illegal to publish any advertisement “with respect to the sale or rental of a dwelling that indicates any preference, limitation, or discrimination based on race, color, religion, sex, handicap, familial status, or national origin.” Violators can face tens of thousands of dollars in fines.
Every single ad was approved within minutes.
Under its own policies, Facebook should have flagged these ads, and prevented the posting of some of them. Its failure to do so revives questions about whether the company is in compliance with federal fair housing rules, as well as about its ability and commitment to police discriminatory advertising on the world’s largest social network.
Housing, employment and credit are the three areas in which federal law prohibits discriminatory ads. However, the U. S. Department of Housing and Urban Development — the agency responsible for enforcing fair housing laws — told us that it has closed an inquiry into Facebook’s advertising policies, reducing pressure on the company to address the issue. In a 2015 newspaper column, Ben Carson, now HUD secretary, criticized “government-engineered attempts to legislate racial equality” in housing.
Facebook’s failure to police discriminatory rental ads flies in the face of its promises in February that it would no longer approve ads for housing, employment or credit that targeted racial categories. For advertising aimed at audiences not selected by race, Facebook said it would require housing, employment and credit advertisers to “self-certify” that their ads were compliant with anti-discrimination laws.
Based on Facebook’s announcement, the ads purchased by ProPublica that were aimed at racial categories should have been rejected. The others should have prompted a screen to pop up asking for self-certification.
We never encountered a self-certification screen, and none of our ads were rejected by Facebook.
“This was a failure in our enforcement and we’re disappointed that we fell short of our commitments,” Ami Vora, vice president of product management at Facebook, said in an emailed statement. “The rental housing ads purchased by ProPublica should have but did not trigger the extra review and certifications we put in place due to a technical failure.”
Vora added that Facebook’s anti-discrimination system had “successfully flagged millions of ads” in the credit, employment and housing categories and that Facebook will now begin requiring self-certification for ads in all categories that choose to exclude an audience segment. “Our systems continue to improve but we can do better,” Vora said.
About 37 percent of U. S. households rented in 2016, representing a 50-year high, according to the Joint Center for Housing Studies of Harvard University. On average, renters earn about half as much as homeowners, and the percentage of families with children that rent rather than buy has increased sharply in the past decade, the study said. Minority renters have long faced pervasive housing discrimination. A 2013 study by HUD found that real estate agents show more units to whites than to African Americans, Asians and Latinos.
Facebook has long been a popular destination for rental listings, on pages hosted by real estate brokers, property owners and building managers. Earlier this month, Facebook announced that it had added two large providers of rental listings to its Facebook Marketplace service. “Marketplace is a popular place for people to look for a home to rent,” Facebook product manager Bowen Pan said in a press release.
Facebook warns rental advertisers in its Marketplace section that “listings that discriminate against a protected class can be reported and will be removed from Facebook.”
Facebook’s anti-discrimination initiative was prompted by an article published last year by ProPublica. For that story, we bought a Facebook ad targeting house hunters. We were able to use Facebook’s features to block the ad from being shown to anyone with an “affinity” for African American, Asian American or Hispanic people. Our ability to narrow the audience based on race raised the question of whether such ads violated the Fair Housing Act.
After ProPublica’s article appeared in the fall of 2016, HUD, then under the Obama administration, began examining Facebook’s practices. Facebook then said it would build an automated system to spot ads that discriminate illegally. “We take these issues seriously,” Facebook Vice President Erin Egan wrote in a blog post. “Discriminatory advertising has no place on Facebook.”