An investigative report from the UK’s Channel Four News team on Monday accused the 2016 Trump election campaign of actively trying to suppress the Black vote.
The expose claims that Trump’s digital team targeted negative ads about Hillary Clinton at 3.5 million Black American voters in battleground states with the hope that they wouldn’t show up to cast a ballot for Trump’s opponent.
Because many of the alleged deterrence ads were dark posts, visible just to those targeted and which disappear when the campaign ends, only Facebook knows how many people were messaged.
Today, Facebook no longer allows dark posts or targeting based on race, and it’s made moves to ban ads that promote voter suppression. But tamping down on discriminatory targeting on its platform is an ongoing battle.
With just over a month to go until the next United States presidential election, here’s a timeline of Facebook’s struggle to whack the mole that haunts its algorithms.
After refusing to restrict political advertising on its platform, citing free speech and open discourse, Facebook finally relented, sort of. Facebook will ban political ads the week before the Nov. 3, 2020, election in an effort to combat the spread of election-related misinformation.
Many pundits have declared it a milquetoast move. Political ads submitted before Oct. 27 will still run, advertisers that submit ads before that time will still be able to play around with the targeting parameters and the ads themselves can still promote falsehoods as long as they don’t contain hate speech or foster voter suppression.
For example, Facebook will ban ads claiming that people of a certain race, ethnicity, national origin, sexual orientation or immigration status are a threat to anyone’s physical health or safety, and crack down on ads that cast aspersions on refugees, immigrants, migrants or asylum seekers.
Zuck also said Facebook would start labeling incendiary content.
The US Department of Housing and Urban Development hit Facebook with a lawsuit claiming that its advertising tools allow landlords and home sellers to limit who can see certain online ads based on race, religion, sex, disability and other characteristics – a violation of the Fair Housing Act. Facebook was also slapped with similar complaints from the Department of Justice, the ACLU and the National Fair Housing Alliance (NFHA).
Around the same time, Facebook announced plans to remove more than 5,000 targeting parameters that could be used to discriminate against minority groups, including “Passover,” “Native American culture” and “evangelism.” Advertisers now have to certify within Ads Manager that they comply with Facebook’s anti-discrimination policy if they want to keep advertising on the platform.
Facebook settled with HUD, the ACLU and the NFHA in early 2019.
Facebook said it would implement verification and transparency processes for political advertisers looking to run issue ads. Pages with a large number of followers, already required to go through a verification process, now have to do the same if they want to run any election-related ads.
And in response to Russian interference in the 2016 election, Facebook also eliminated dark posts, one of the 2016 Trump campaign’s favorite tactics, and promised the creation of a public ads archive so that users and researchers could see all of the ads created and promoted by a specific page.
ProPublica called out Facebook for enabling age-based targeting which employers could use to discriminate against older job seekers. The Age Discrimination in Employment Act makes it illegal to target people under 40 or to discourage people over the age of 40 from applying to job postings.
Facebook said it would disable targeting based on ethnicity for credit, housing and employment advertisers by creating a tool to scan ad content and alert buyers when they’re about to make an illegal purchase.
Racial targeting is against federal law in the housing, employment and credit verticals.