News & Politics

Facebook Accused of Allowing Companies Like Uber to Run Discriminatory Ads

(AP Photo/Wilfredo Lee, FILE)

One of the benefits of advertising on Facebook is that advertisers can pinpoint who sees their ads by location, interests, occupation, age, and sex. While Facebook promotes this feature as a way to more effectively advertise, a newly released study by ProPublica identifies 15 employers, including Uber, who are breaking a federal discrimination law by targeting their ads to just one sex.

The study found that Uber ran 91 ads on Facebook in over a dozen cities in the U.S. in its campaign to recruit drivers, and all except one of those ads were targeted to men, while three of the ads did not target a specific sex.

Among the 15 advertisers searching for employees, the Pennsylvania State Police ran an ad directed just to men in an effort to recruit state troopers, as did a Michigan trucking company looking for drivers. Another ad that was targeted to women was looking for nurses and medical assistants.

All these ads violated the law based on the 1973 Supreme Court ruling that makes it illegal for an employer to take out job ads in newspapers with descriptions such as: “Help wanted — men.”

According to ProPublica, “The ACLU, the Communications Workers of America and the firm Outten & Golden filed a complaint with the Equal Employment Opportunity Commission on Tuesday about Facebook’s practices. The filing, which is the first step before filing a lawsuit, names 10 employers who had advertised jobs only to men. The complaint argues that Facebook itself has broken the law by publishing the ads.”

Facebook responded, “There is no place for discrimination on Facebook; it’s strictly prohibited in our policies. We look forward to defending our practices once we have an opportunity to review the complaint.”

The problem is that Facebook has created the tools for advertisers to do just what they are accused of doing. Facebook denies responsibility, yet maintains that even though they are giving advertisers the ability to target employment ads by sex and age, they are not facilitating discrimination. Facebook argues that they are not liable if users break the law using their tools.

In their defense, some of the companies cited in the report explained that the ads cited are just one of many ads they run that are targeted to different demographic groups.

For example, an ad from Johnsonville Sausage targets men ages 18 to 60 who are interested in hunting, but the company says it’s only one ad among many others that reach both men and women.

If this seems familiar, it’s because in 2016 ProPublica called out Facebook for allowing advertisers to exclude certain people based on race, religion, national origin, and age. Facebook eventually removed some of these capabilities.

Advertisers love this feature of Facebook advertising because they can spend less money to reach more of their specific target customers.  While some may use it to exclude, other advertisers may be using the ads to add diversity to their organizations. That may have been the case with ads from T-Mobile and Boeing looking for female engineers.

Facebook’s answer to this problem is to ask the advertisers to check a box saying their ads are legal. But critics say this is not enough. The solution is simple. Facebook simply needs to eliminate the option for advertisers to target employment ads by sex and age. This seems to be just another example of Facebook failing to take responsibility for the problems it causes and blaming others for using their tools the way they’ve been designed to be used.