back to article Facebook ad platform discriminates all on its own, say boffins

Facebook has been taking a lot of stick over discrimination on its platform but a new paper suggests that the problems with the platform could go deeper. After three years of criticism that its ad system allows advertisers to unlawfully discriminate, Facebook last month announced changes to its ad platform intended to prevent …

  1. Mark 85 Silver badge

    Maybe it's not discrimination at all.

    So now it has to be gender neutral and ethnic neutral advertisng only? Let's face it, how many men buy cosmetics? Or women who buy say power tools? How many whites buy black cosmetics? Or vice versa? Advertising has always had "target markets" as have a lot of products. There's magazines and <gasp> websites solely focused on various gender and ethnic populations. Should this apply to them also?

    1. allthegoodnamesweretaken

      Re: Maybe it's not discrimination at all.

      I don't think the problem identified here (there are many problems elsewhere) is that everything must be advertised equally to all people. In this instance, the advertiser chose neutral options and the results were skewed anyway. So even if you want neutral advertising you can't have it because Facebook.

    2. Captain Scarlet Silver badge
      Coat

      Re: Maybe it's not discrimination at all.

      Erm my mother purchased a power sander last week (I did say she should have told me and I would have got that instead of a pointless overpriced box of chocolates). I also use whatever face wash is on offer in the mens isle I think that means I buy cosmetics (Correct me if I am wrong).

      1. David Nash

        Re: Maybe it's not discrimination at all.

        Surely "face wash" is "soap", not "cosmetics", whatever aisle it's in?

        1. Captain Scarlet Silver badge

          Re: Maybe it's not discrimination at all.

          Erm I use "L'Oreal Men Expert Pure Power Wash", the soap is long gone replaced by a liquid soap dispencer which I find isnt good at washing my face (After dropping a bar and then slipping on said bar, although it could be the BOFH trying to get rid of me).

          According to Google it shows up as Skin Care on most sites (Boots is confused and doesn't know what to categorise it as).

          1. DavCrav Silver badge

            Re: Maybe it's not discrimination at all.

            "Erm I use "L'Oreal Men Expert Pure Power Wash""

            So, not cosmetics then.

            "the soap is long gone replaced by a liquid soap dispencer"

            So, soap then. Whether it's a solid or liquid doesn't matter. It isn't cosmetics. That's stuff like lipstick and foundation.

            Just because you look better after a wash doesn't make the soap a cosmetic. A nice shirt isn't cosmetics.

      2. bombastic bob Silver badge
        Devil

        Re: Maybe it's not discrimination at all.

        although there IS men's makeup out there, most men don't need to cover up the lines, wrinkles, and scars, nor enhance their lips or eyes, to make women want them. [I could go on and talk about having hundred dollar bills hanging out of your pockets, being the big spender, dressing in expensive clothes, driving a BMW or a Mercedes or a Rolls or a Jaguar, and so on, but I won't. I don't need to go there. Heh]

        'cosmetics' in stores _includes_ specialized face/body wash though, as I recall. I haven't worked in a store for decades, but that one had a YUGE cosmetics department... yeah it's a major moneymaker! And you always seem to find 'that sort of thing' in or near the cosmetics department.

        There seems to be a small market for men's makeup for politicians and actors and rich people who want to look 'camera worthy' all of the time. Lots of presidents have used makeup for this purpose, including Reagan, Clinton, and probably Trump. I suppose you could consider it to be more like 'stage makeup' but who knows. So I guess there's a market for it. Just not a big one.

    3. bombastic bob Silver badge
      Stop

      Re: Maybe it's not discrimination at all.

      although I agree that certain products (like cosmetics) probably are affected by sex and race, the assertion here is that racial or sex stereotypes are driving the ad placement... and possibly denying certain opportunities to women or members of minority races. The example I'm thinking of is the advertisement for janitorial jobs primarily to black people. That's a *little* degrading at the least, don' you think?

      I think the solution may be simple: don't declare your sex nor race online. Always answer "I do not identify myself" or "other" or "not specified". Then the discrimination will STOP.

      aka if you want a color-blind society, we have to STOP focusing on 'color'. Best way to do that: don't give them the info in the FIRST place.

      (recently I had the opportunity, on a google or apple related thing, to specify my 'gender' as something OTHER than male or female. I chose 'other' and wrote in 'hyper male', using 'he' as a pronoun. heh)

  2. Martin Summers Silver badge

    A massage therapist I use had her advert on Facebook flagged up for review because she chose for it only to be seen by women. She took this decision to prevent the many creepy advances she gets from men. They said it could be seen as gender discrimination. Yet it seems they can quite happily let their system distribute ads in a biased fashion of its own accord.

    You could scream bias and bigotry or you could just accept facts that the adverts are being shown more than likely to just the people you want them to be shown to and that the system is being effective based on the realities of this world. Society needs to have a grown up conversation with itself about this. Most of the time no harm is intended or is in fact done by anything such as this. What are they trying to achieve with this really? Adverts for makeup and sanitary products shown to everyone male female etc because it's wrong to be biased?Realistically thousands of pounds wasted by advertisers because someone took offence yet again on behalf of someone else that was never offended and didn't realise they should have been in the first place.

    1. DavCrav Silver badge

      "A massage therapist I use had her advert on Facebook flagged up for review because she chose for it only to be seen by women. She took this decision to prevent the many creepy advances she gets from men."

      Unfortunately, if you run a business, any discrimination has to be proportional to the goal, justifiable, etc.. You need a long paper trail to make sure you don't get sued.

  3. I sound like Peter Griffin!!
    Holmes

    Ehem...

    Both of you need to take a second look at what you've just typed, and compare it starkly with what has been stated in the article.

    The very specific issue of 'unwanted' bias was highlighted with respect to the jobs, housing and credit ad placement scenarios, not tampons and lipstick.

    @Mark 85 - "..So now it has to be gender neutral and ethnic neutral advertisng only.." NO - but where there is NO NEED to target people along these lines, the platform should not be seen to be doing so anyway. Why aren't both genders and ethnicities receiving ads for both jobs? White people can't janitor? Black people can't lumber..?

    @Martin Summers - so you're saying white people in USA shouldn't be shown janitorial jobs because black people were "...never offended and didn't realise they should have been in the first place..." ..? They complain about this ALL the time; literally ALL the time. They DO feel offended and they DO realise there's a bias. It's usually impossible to prove and subsequently gain recompense from a biased ad platform with the clout of FaceBook, but that doesn't mean their 'systematic bias' suspicions are incorrectly placed or non existent..

    Read carefully folks - perspective looks like a caliedescope, not a telescope....

    1. Headley_Grange Silver badge

      Re: Ehem...

      You don't sound like Peter Griffin to me. I was sort of with the first two posters until I read your post. Thanks.

    2. tekHedd

      Unwanted bias

      To be fair, the article does not really do a good job of focusing on the unwanted part of the bias issue.

      Obviously the system is doing its job really well: it detects who is reacting to the ad and serves the ad to them. The fact that it's completely impossible to make it do what you actually want when your goals are not just "maximizing profit" may be a problem, true, but that's a problem with every modern system. Try to browse for a specific movie on Netflix, search for a specific spelling of a word on Google, filter Amazon search results for a specific product, see the most recent item in your Facebook timeline...none of these things are really possible any more because the algorithms are designed to steer you towards buying product, and have no other purpose.

      This is now the norm. Facebook's ad system is highly optimized to do one thing and it does it well. The fact that this optimization also inflexibly reinforces existing biases is a problem, but solving that problem will never be a goal. You can force them to add a second mode that bypasses the optimizatino, but the prejudice-reinforcing algorithm will always be used for normal operation, because there's more money, and to a corporation there is no greater good.

    3. Martin Summers Silver badge

      Re: Ehem...

      @Peter Griffin

      I didn't bring race into this you did and I was purposely staying away from that. Race is an highly emotive subject and very easy to use to beat someone down with so they shut up and don't argue. It's actually probably just other demographics at play. How do we know for certain that these targeted ads are completely biased towards black people rather than black people make up the most of the demographic that the advertiser wanted to target? It doesn't always have to be about race or gender.

      If and only if someone deliberately developed an algorithm that said white people shouldn't be shown janitorial jobs could you say there was definitely a deliberately racist bias. I sincerely hope that hasn't happened here. I personally can't imagine that is a purposeful decision that someone made though. If that was the case then no white people would be shown the ads for janitors at all. How do you even code bias like that in? Genuine question to anyone who may know the answer.

  4. doublelayer Silver badge

    USC means one of two things

    "According to boffins from Northeastern University, the University of Southern Carolina, and tech accountability non-profit Upturn ..."

    I know that USC can refer to one of two American universities, but they are the University of Southern California and the University of South Carolina. They haven't gotten around to making the University of South California or the University of Southern Carolina yet, but I'm sure they will in order to make the acronym even harder to understand. For now, from the paper, let's properly credit the University of Southern California for the work they did.

  5. Anonymous Coward
    Anonymous Coward

    Easily solved...

    Make targetted ads illegal and punishable by jail terms.

    And in other Facebook related news:

    https://www.telegraph.co.uk/technology/2019/04/03/facebook-caught-asking-users-passwords-email-accounts/

    1. Charles 9 Silver badge

      Re: Easily solved...

      And then when it's shown that UNTARGETED ads are inherently biased, too, simply because of the human condition (as noted in the article, for no specific reason women click through more than men)?

    2. Anonymous Coward
      Anonymous Coward

      Re: Easily solved...

      So if I'm advertising a breast pump I can't target my ad at women only? If I'm advertising ED pills I can't target my ad at men only? I have to waste half my ad budget on people who will never buy my product?

      Discrimination is only a problem when it is applied at something where it matters - i.e. targeting a job ad for an IT Director at men only. If I was a woman living in a two bedroom apartment needing to rent out the other room, I should hope I'd be within my rights to refuse to rent to men, and therefore advertise only to women. It would be a different matter if I owned the apartment, and wanted to rent only to women. But even there some discrimination should be possible - if you have apartments in a development targeted for senior living, you should be able to advertise only to those over 65 (or whatever age you determine "senior" to be) since you would only rent to those above a certain age.

      1. Anonymous Coward
        Anonymous Coward

        Re: Easily solved...

        The problem is that every time this story comes up people go all 'EU bans bent bananas' on it, and claim it means advertisers are going to have to waste money and put adverts for Ferrari in Greenpeace monthly and adverts for Greggs in Horse and Hounds.

        Countries have laws, some of those laws ban specific forms of discrimination. Facebook et al need to ensure that they, their advertisers AND their algorithms respect those laws. You wouldn't let a newspaper off with an excuse 'we didn't mean the advert to say 'white men only may apply', it was just added by autocomplete by mistake' - so why should FB be forgiven?

        1. Anonymous Coward
          Anonymous Coward

          Re: Easily solved...

          "adverts for Greggs in Horse and Hounds(sic)"

          I've seen the hunt stop at Greggs in town of a Saturday morning, why can't they enjoy a Steak Bake like the rest of us.

          1. Korev Silver badge
            Joke

            Re: Easily solved...

            Isn't feeding dogs Greggs "pasties" animal abuse?

      2. This post has been deleted by its author

      3. David Nash

        Re: Easily solved...

        "So if I'm advertising a breast pump I can't target my ad at women only? If I'm advertising ED pills I can't target my ad at men only? I have to waste half my ad budget on people who will never buy my product?"

        No, go and read the article again.

    3. rg287 Silver badge

      Re: Easily solved...

      Make targetted ads illegal and punishable by jail terms.

      Literally impossible.

      Simply choosing to advertise on one TV channel over another, or in one particular newspaper or journal is a form of targeting.

      Choosing to sponsor the Henley Regatta as opposed to your local football team targets your brand to a specific subset of people over another.

      Regulation of online advertising to limit individual targeting could and should be better but you literally can't prevent advertisers developing strategies to target their ads at specific gender, age or racial groups.

      Of course you can sue on discrimination grounds - but after the fact, and only if you can prove it. The BBC copped a lot of flak a few years ago when someone decided they wanted the next Blue Peter presenter to be from NI so only ran audition/casting-call adverts in NI papers and media...

      1. Anonymous Coward
        Anonymous Coward

        Re: Easily solved...

        But when it comes to Henley or TV channels, you are advertising to a self-selected group, not one selected by you. See the difference?

        The ideal personalised advertisement is not one that is sent out based on the assumption of the advertiser. It is one based on it going to people who have indicated by their behaviour that they might be interested. And as any real direct marketing company will tell you, there is nothing more valuable than a targeted ad which goes to somebody who thinks "I've been wondering about that...".

        1. Anonymous Coward
          Anonymous Coward

          Re: Easily solved...

          Hence why companies would be willing to pay more to advertise on Google to people who search for "men's golf shoes" if they are a company that in fact sells men's golf shoes. Or on Facebook to someone who belongs to three support groups for Crohn's disease if the company is selling something related to Crohn's disease.

          Not everything works that way though, people don't search Google when they are looking for an apartment, or belong to Facebook groups called something like "looking for IT director job in Cleveland".

        2. Charles 9 Silver badge

          Re: Easily solved...

          "But when it comes to Henley or TV channels, you are advertising to a self-selected group, not one selected by you. See the difference?"

          No, if the self-selected group happens to be itself engaged in illegally-discriminatory behavior.

    4. phuzz Silver badge

      Re: Easily solved...

      Even easier to solve than that. Just use an adblocker if you have to visit facebook.

  6. big_D Silver badge
    Boffin

    To hell with being unbiased.

    I'm very biased... I have pushed all Facebook domains into a blacklist on my DNS server.

  7. Draco
    Mushroom

    A pox on people behaving sterotypically

    The paper lays out the following:

    "Intuitively, the goal is to show ads that particular users are likely to engage with, even in cases where the advertiser does not know a priori which users are most receptive to their message. To accomplish this, the platforms build extensive user interest profiles and track ad performance to understand how different users interact with different ads. This historical data is then used to steer future ads towards those users who are most likely to be interested in them, and to users like them."

    Which is exactly what you would expect effective advertising to do: target based on individual interests.

    However, the paper then shifts from the individual to the group with the following argument:

    "However, in doing so, the platforms may inadvertently cause ads to deliver primarily to a skewed subgroup ... if these “valuable” user demo-graphics are strongly correlated with protected classes, it could lead to discriminatory ad delivery"

    So, if the targeted individuals could be strongly correlated with a protected class, then it leads to "discriminatory" targeting. As the paper continues:

    For example, ads targeting the same audience but that include a creative that would stereotypically be of the most interest to men (e.g., bodybuilding) can deliver to over 80% men, and those that include a creative that would stereotypically be of the the most interest to women (e.g., cosmetics) can deliver to over 90% women. Similarly, ads referring to cultural content stereotypically of most interest to black users (e.g., hip-hop) can deliver to over 85% black users, and those referring to content stereotypically of interest to white users (e.g., country music) can deliver to over 80% white users"

    Which, to me, suggests the algorithms are working correctly, the problem is people engaging in "stereotypical" patterns of behaviour which the algorithms are picking up on.

    1. Anonymous Coward
      Anonymous Coward

      Re: A pox on people behaving sterotypically

      No - the problem is tech companies hiding behind 'it's the algorithm wot done it' when caught out doing stuff that is against the law.

      Advertising country music to people interested in country music - no problem, and thank you for not targeting me.

      Putting your advert for IT geeks on El Reg, fine (though why you would want to employ the type of people who read/comment on El Reg, rather than getting on with work, idk).

      Checking the gender of El Reg readers algorithmicly and replacing the job advert with one for cosmetics if you think I'm female - immoral, stupid, and arguably illegal.

      1. Anonymous Coward
        Anonymous Coward

        Re: A pox on people behaving sterotypically

        "Checking the gender of El Reg readers algorithmicly and replacing the job advert with one for cosmetics if you think I'm female - immoral, stupid, and arguably illegal."

        But the point here is that the algorithm is targeting the people most likely to respond to the advert correct?

        Why is this bad?

        1. Anonymous Coward
          Anonymous Coward

          Re: A pox on people behaving sterotypically

          Its bad because (or if) it's illegal. Just because its done by a computer program doesn't make it legal.. There are laws preventing discrimination.

          Try this one. I'm a landlady of a B&B. I put a 'Vacancy' sign in my window. Twitching the lace curtains I see an El Reg reader walking up the drive. I flip the sign to 'No vacancy' purely because I don't like geeks. When they leave I replace the sign with 'Vacancy'. That's discrimination . If I geekily set up a camera and AI to automatically flip the sign if it spots a Reg reader (idk, beard with pizza crumbs, beer stained pullover, Psion organiser in top pocket - should be easy enough) i'm still the bigot - it's not the computer that gets prosecuted.

          1. Korev Silver badge
            Terminator

            Re: A pox on people behaving sterotypically

            Wouldn't a better analogy be that your "AI" looks at videos of guests and then is told who trashed the room or not; then it could flip the sign over if it predicted a naughty guest. Of course if the model decided that say black people were more likely to trash the room then the owner of the B&B would be done for discrimination...

            1. Charles 9 Silver badge

              Re: A pox on people behaving sterotypically

              It would be interesting to see such a lawsuit actually go through the courts: a selection that is racially biased on meritocratic grounds. There could be an argument that the protected class is not doing itself any favors if they and only they have been categorically shown to be the only ones misbehaving. Sorta like how one side says that the police are unfairly targeting black neighborhoods and the other counters that most of the calls they get come from those same neighborhoods. Kinda creates a Morton's Fork where the only way to be effective is to appear unfair.

      2. Draco

        Re: A pox on people behaving sterotypically

        Checking the gender of El Reg readers algorithmicly and replacing the job advert with one for cosmetics if you think I'm female - immoral, stupid, and arguably illegal.

        I agree, this would be illegal, but the paper isn't saying that coders have written code along the lines of:

        if User.sex == 'female' then Display('cosmetics')

        What the paper is arguing is that when code like this:

        Match(User.interests, available_ads)

        returns 'cosmetics' it has done so correctly based on the user's interests, but when you look at the aggregate set of users for whom 'cosmetics' was returned, you notice that it is predominantly women. Since this 'clustering' is higher than you would expect from a random sampling of users, the algorithm is inadvertently discriminating towards women (or against non-women). Since sex discrimination is illegal, this algorithmic bias is "illegal".

        Consider this from a different angle. If the algorithm predominantly showed ads for Romulan Ale to people who are Star Trek fans, but not Star Wars fans, you could make the same argument that it discriminates against Star Wars fans (or discriminates toward Star Trek fans) when choosing to place ads for Romulan Ale. If Star Trek and Star Wars fanship was a protected category, this would be "illegal".

        1. Anonymous Coward
          Anonymous Coward

          Re: A pox on people behaving sterotypically

          The thing is that there is really sod all difference between "If User.sex == 'female' then Display('cosmetics') and Match(User.interests, available_ads). is 90%. Except the first one doesn't get called 'AI' and get venture capitalists swooning.

          1. Draco
            Mushroom

            Re: A pox on people behaving sterotypically

            There is a tremendous difference between If User.sex == 'female' then Display('cosmetics') and Match(User.interests, available_ads).

            The first explicitly targets 100% of women (well, those identifying as 'female').

            The second targets those who have expressed interest in things like: hiding skin blemishes, eyeshadow, comparison between Maybelline and Revlon mascara, skin toning, etc. It does NOT select 100% of women, only those who expressed interest in those sorts of things. In like manner, it does not ignore 100% of men, because it selects those who expressed interest in those sorts of things. Now, if 10% of women expressed interest and 0.1% of men expressed interest, then you would get women representing 90% of the target audience.

            1. Draco
              Mushroom

              Re: A pox on people behaving sterotypically

              Evidently I can't do sums at the end of the day (shows you I'm not a bot). That should be 10% women and 1% men or 1% women and 0.1% men or any other 10:1 ratio.

  8. ProgrammerForHire

    so making money from targeted adds is outside social norms now.. good riddance Google and Facebook, no tear will be shed

    1. Korev Silver badge
      Coat

      That'd be a Plus

  9. Anonymous Coward
    Anonymous Coward

    Facebook ads tend to be shown to men because women tend to click on ads more often

    Not really seeing how this is The Patriarchy tbh.

    1. tekHedd

      TBH

      Looks like you got a downvote for being honest. That happens a lot to me too.

  10. Snowy
    Facepalm

    Measuring racial ad delivery

    A couple of points on this, from the paper:

    [quote]The Facebook Marketing API allows advertisers to request a breakdown of ad delivery performance along a number of axes but it does not provide a breakdown based on race. However, for the purposes of this work, we are able to measure the ad delivery breakdown along racial lines by using location (Designated Market Area, or DMA*) as a proxy.

    *Designated Market Areas [52] are groups of U.S. counties that Neilson denes as “market areas”; they were originally used to signify a region where users receive similar broadcast television and radio stations. Facebook reports ad delivery by location using DMA regions, so we use them here as well

    DMA Region(s) [52] Aud. Records

    1

    Wilmington White 450,000

    Raleigh–Durham White 450,002

    2

    Greenville–Spartanburg

    Greenville–New Bern Black 446,047

    Charlotte

    Greensboro Black 446,050

    Table 1: Overview of the four North Carolina custom audiences used to measure racial delivery. We divide the most populated DMAs in the state into two groups, and in each

    group, create two audiences with ∼450,000 users of the same race. We then use the statistics Facebook reports about delivery by DMAs to infer delivery by race.

    [/quote]

    Not very accurate way to determine race and I am am quite sure race is more complex than black or white.

    1. bombastic bob Silver badge
      Unhappy

      Re: Measuring racial ad delivery

      "Not very accurate way to determine race and I am am quite sure race is more complex than black or white."

      It's the fact that this is being DONE that seems offensive to me...

  11. naive

    Targeted ads are as old as book printing

    "Research showed that 90% of the ads for high end Swiss watches was targeted at white males between 40 and 60 years old that have a profile indicating they might have a higher management positions".

    In the paper age we already had targeted ads. Putting ads for Ferraris, IWC watches and LearJet Gulfstreams in the Sun would have been a waste of paper.

    Different classes of people could choose the magazines and newspapers matching their status in society.

    Why do research on subjects which are established facts for centuries ?.

    1. Anonymous Coward
      Anonymous Coward

      Re: Targeted ads are as old as book printing

      This isn't about targeted adverts. It's about advertising that breaks discrimination laws. As far as I am aware we have no laws that address the advertising, sale or wearing of watches. So this is nothing to do with watches. We do have laws addressing discrimination in the workplace and in housing.

  12. Charles 9 Silver badge

    Owen Bytheway...

    Relevant to the discussion, it seems that the US Department of Housing and Urban Development is suing Facebook over discriminatory advertising, particularly "back door" discrimination by optimizing for factors that just happen to reject protected classes without overtly saying so.

  13. conel

    Mirror Calibration

    Facebook's algorithms are a mirror which reflects reality. Some people don't like the look of reality so they want Facebook to distort the reflected image, sounds like a tricky job.

  14. Paul 87

    Targeted ads *gasp* target people?

    Well no shit Sherlock

    I'd love to kill the idea of targeted ads dead as a doornail but then we'd have to pay for all the internet sites we wished to use, and it'd likely kill off a lot of self published content too

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