10/28/2016 02:38 EDT | Updated 10/31/2016 08:47 EDT

Facebook's Targeted Advertising Can Exclude Users By 'Ethnic Affinity'

A U.S. civil rights lawyer says this is "massively illegal."

Facebook is being accused of discrimination after it emerged that advertisers on the social network can exclude people based on their "ethnic affinity."

That doesn't mean they can be excluded based on race. But it does show that advertisers can stop people from seeing their ads if their social activity indicates an "affinity" for an ethnicity such as African-American, Asian-American or Hispanic.

The social media giant's Adverts Manager allows advertisers to prevent certain demographics from seeing their ads.

It says that exclusions can help advertisers better target their ads, and reach people who are more likely to buy products or services.

Advertisers can also include specific audiences for their posts, i.e. shoe company ads can be targeted to customers who are interested in fashion.

A man poses with a magnifier in front of a Facebook logo on display in this illustration. (Photo: Reuters)

While these methods can help to target consumers, public interest news site ProPublica discovered that Facebook's system also allows advertisers to exclude users who show a particular "ethnic affinity," like African Americans, Asian Americans and Hispanics.

There is no option for including (or excluding) people who show a "White" or "Caucasian" affinity.

ProPublica bought an ad targeting Facebook users who were house-hunting, and it managed to exclude users with an affinity for all three ethnic demographics mentioned above.

Civil rights lawyer John Relman told the news site that this is "massively illegal," as it constitutes a violation of the U.S. Fair Housing Act.

The Huffington Post Canada tried out the Adverts Manager, though it didn't buy an ad. And indeed, it is possible to choose a particular ethnic affinity.

A screengrab from Facebook's Adverts Manager:

Facebook introduced the function as part of a "multicultural advertising" effort, Steve Satterfield, privacy and public policy manager, told ProPublica.

He noted that the social network has policies that prevent advertisers from discriminating against people based on race.

Christian Martinez, Facebook's head of multicultural, issued a press release on Friday stating that its policies prohibit negative exclusion, such as an apartment that won't rent to black men.

"If we learn of advertising on our platform that involves this kind of discrimination, we will take aggressive enforcement action," he said.

Facebook said advertisers use targeting to determine with which audiences ads resonate best.

'For example, some audiences might click on Spanish-language ads for a World Cup sponsorship vs. other audiences might click more on the same ads in English, so the sponsor might run one campaign in English that excludes the Hispanic affinity group to see how well the campaign performs against running that ad campaign in Spanish."

'Not the box you check on the census'

Facebook previously told tech website Ars Technica's Annalee Newitz that it is not engaged in racial profiling, since it determines your ethnic affinity based on your activity.

For instance, it may determine you have an "African-American" affinity based on posts about BET or Black Lives Matter, but that doesn't mean it thinks you're black.

Martinez said the social networking site is giving advertisers the ability to reach people whose likes and other activity "suggest they’re interested in content relating to particular ethnic communities — African American, Hispanic American and Asian American."

"Anyone can use ad preferences to learn whether they’re seeing ads based on these interests, and choose whether or not they want to receive these kinds of ads," he said.

Facebook does not currently have a means for people to identify themselves as belonging to a certain race or ethnicity.

But the social network is, in essence, monetizing the way you express your identity by monitoring your likes, shares and comments, "not the box you check on the census," Newitz added.

Facebook's "exclusion marketing" allows advertisers to prevent users that belong to specific demographics from seeing its ads. (Photo: Reuters)

Advertisers can exclude people based on other factors, too.

Ads can also be hidden from users based on their relationship status, interests, behaviours and which generations they belong to.

Note: Facebook issued a press release and responded to this article after original publication. This story has been updated to include their comments.

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