Facebook has enormous power because of the platforms ability to customize an online audience for advertisements, based on its vast trove of user data has made it the biggest advertising agency in the world.
In November 2017, 19 prominent civil rights groups representing African-American, Muslim, Latino, Asian, and LGBTQ communities, among others, sent a letter to Facebook yesterday, expressing “deep concern” over “hateful content on their platform used to divide the country,” and calling for the social media giant to do more to combat it—including release the now infamous Russian bought ads that attempted to use divisive social messages to influence the presidential election.
The letter, addressed to Facebook CEO Mark Zuckerberg and COO Sheryl Sandberg, cited several examples of how Russian operatives used fake accounts to foster social division and stir up animus, especially around topics like immigration and Black Lives Matter—but complained that it was limited to citing examples in the news, because the groups “do not have access to all the divisive content targeting communities we represent.”
Back in November, Facebook sought to address the growing concerns that their hyper-targeted ad products could be used in a discriminatory way:
“Policymakers and civil rights leaders have expressed concerns that advertisers could misuse some aspects of our affinity marketing segments. Specifically, they’ve raised the possibility that some advertisers might use these segments to run ads that discriminate against people, particularly in areas where certain groups have historically faced discrimination – housing, employment and the extension of credit.”
Facebook’s business model is based on allowing advertisers to target specific groups — or, apparently to exclude specific groups — using huge reams of personal data the company has collected about its users. In the past, equal rights advocates have sued Facebook for accepting ads that discriminate against consumers based on their religion, race, and gender.
For example, discrimination against older workers is a big problem that is often overlooked in civil rights discussions. The number of age discrimination complaints submitted to the US Equal Employment Opportunity Commission (EEOC) has been rising steadily in the past 10 years, with about 18,000 complaints filed in fiscal year 2017 — it equates to about 20 percent of all complaints filed with the federal agency.