Big Tech

Facebook allowed housing and employment advertisers to exclude users with Indigenous interests

An ad created by The Logic on June 18 to verify Facebook’s housing ad policies. The ad was approved and posted within six minutes.
An ad created by The Logic on June 18 to verify Facebook’s housing ad policies. The ad was approved and posted within six minutes.
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Facebook said it has disabled advertisers from screening out housing and employment applicants who are interested in Indigenous Peoples, hours after being contacted by The Logic.

More than a year after the social network said it would ramp up enforcement of its ban on discriminatory practices, we were able to create 12 ads for either housing or employment applications, each one containing demographic criteria that blocked them from appearing on certain users’ Facebook feeds.

Each ad we tested excluded viewers based on at least one demographic or interest category related to race, ethnicity, culture, age, gender or marital status. The platform barred us from hiding ads from users interested in or identifying as demographics including “African American,” “Black,” “Mexican,” “American Indian,” “Italian,” “queer” and “transgender.”

We were, however, able to hide ads from people who’ve indicated interest in the terms “Indigenous peoples,” [sic] “metis,” [sic] “Anishinaabe” and “Cree.” Facebook approved all of these ads, in most cases in under five minutes.

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“We’re grateful to The Logic for raising this important issue. We’ve removed these terms from our systems so that they cannot be used again,” a Facebook spokesperson said in an email.

As of press time, the term “metis” [sic] could still be excluded from interest criteria on Facebook’s Ads Manager system. After the story was published, Facebook replied to The Logic’s earlier question of why the interest category “metis” was able to be excluded from ads. A spokesperson said the term referred to a musician, not an ethnic group (other bands and musicians are explicitly indicated as such), and that Facebook would update Ads Manager to make that clear.

When asked how many times the exclusion tool has been used to block “Indigenous peoples”, “Cree,” and “Anishinaabe” interest groups in housing and job ads, Facebook said “that is not something we release.”

Talking Point

The Logic ran a dozen housing and job ads on Facebook that blocked people with Indigenous interests from seeing them, despite the social network’s claims they no longer allowed this kind of targeting. Human rights lawyers told us that Facebook’s ad policies may have violated the Human Rights Codes of every Canadian province and territory.

The ability to target ultra-specific audiences on Facebook is, in many ways, why the platform is the go-to medium for political campaigns, event promotions and product sales.

However, demographic exclusion or discrimination in matters of employment and housing is illegal in every province and territory in Canada under their Human Rights Codes, which prohibit discriminating based on race, religion, gender and other attributes, as they relate to housing and employment. 

“This is a clear case of Facebook engaging in direct discrimination against Indigenous Canadians and giving commercial entities in Canada the option of direct discrimination against Indigenous Canadians,” said Andrew Langille, a Toronto-based labour lawyer. 

U.S. journalism outlet ProPublica revealed in October 2016 that Facebook gave advertisers the option to hide housing and employment ads from people of or interested in specific demographics. Four months later, Facebook said it disabled the option, but it’s still possible to hide housing and employment ads on the platform from certain groups of people.

Criteria for a computer programming job ad created by The Logic to test Facebook's ad policies. The ad excluded people with who'd expressed "Indigenous peoples", "Anishinaabe" and "Cree" interests. Facebook approved the ad in four minutes
Criteria for a computer programming job ad created by The Logic to test Facebook's ad policies. The post excluded people who'd expressed "Indigenous peoples", "Anishinaabe" and "Cree" interests. Facebook approved the ad in four minutes

Facebook’s spokesperson added: “We’re improving our certification systems, which require advertisers to certify that they comply with our non-discrimination policies and the law when running ads for housing, employment or credit opportunities on Facebook. These systems now reject thousands of such ads per day.” 

Facebook did not respond to The Logic’s question of how many people have purchased housing or employment ads asking to exclude Indigenous interest groups.

Only two of the ads we tested—both housing ads that excluded users indicating “Indigenous peoples” [sic] and “metis” [sic] interests—were flagged by this certification system as potentially being in violation of Facebook’s policies for housing and employment advertising. A screenshot of the warning is pictured below. Along with the warning, the platform provided the option to either have the ad manually reviewed, or check a box acknowledging we had “read Facebook’s policies and will comply with Facebook’s policies and applicable laws.” We chose the latter option, and the ads were approved minutes later.

Facebook popups flagging potentially discriminatory advertising. This notification appeared with two of 12 ads The Logic created.
Facebook popups flagging potentially discriminatory advertising. This notification appeared with two of 12 ads The Logic created.

Though Facebook stopped letting advertisers directly exclude people based on their stated racial, cultural or ancestral demographics last year, Raj Anand, former chief commissioner of the Ontario Human Rights Commission and current partner at WeirFoulds LLP, said that doesn’t necessarily matter. “If you’re excluded on the basis that you are, let’s say, Indigenous, or you are excluded on the basis that I, as a lawyer, do work for Indigenous people, both of those are illegal,” he said, noting that the platform hosting a discriminatory ad can be just as culpable as the advertiser. “Discrimination can be direct or indirect in the sense that, if you facilitate—if you don’t take action when you should, or if you facilitate someone else to discriminate—you’re just as liable.”

“Indigenous people are overwhelmingly using Facebook for their primary needs of [online] communication,” said Philippe Meilleur, Indigenous housing advocate and executive director of Native Montreal. “If people are literally trying to discriminate through [Facebook] ads for opportunities for housing, of course this is going to have a detrimental impact on our community.”

Racism and discrimination are real factors in limiting Indigenous people’s ability to secure and maintain housing and employment in Canada. The Saskatchewan Human Rights Commission published a report this year showing that, after a multi-year consultation, discrimination from landlords was a barrier for Indigenous people in locking down rental housing.

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“It says something about your brand, as a company, when you choose to exclude minority groups,” said Kelly Lendsay, president and CEO of Indigenous Works, who sees racial biases play out in the workforce, too. “With these exclusionary practices, you’re missing out on a talent pool,” he said. “And you’re missing out on a customer base.”

The social media giant isn’t the only place where targeting demographic groups in employment or housing ads happens. A business may place an ad in a trade or culture-specific magazine, for instance, to reach a niche audience whose interests align with the advertiser’s objective. However, the difference with Facebook is the option to not just target certain groups, but expressly deny them the ability to even consider applying for a home or a job.

“This is one more impediment to [Indigenous people] having access to everything they need to have a fulfilling life,” said Meilleur.

Wednesday morning, after Facebook said it resolved the problem, The Logic was able to post a housing ad with the headline: “Apartment For Rent: Indigenous People Need Not Apply.” It was approved in under two minutes.

With files from Zane Schwartz and Sean Craig