Imagine if a report came out showing evidence that Wells Fargo violated the Fair Housing Act by hiding certain home listings from African-Americans. Every politician in Washington would condemn the bank for illegal practices. The Justice Department would be inundated with letters demanding prosecution. Congressional committee chairs would schedule hearings to give members an opportunity to yell at executives. Wells Fargo would put out a sober apology expressing deep sorrow and vowing to make everything right. In other words, we have a context for bank misconduct, and everyone dutifully plays their part.
When the same circumstance occurs with Facebook in the role of the villain, however, nobody knows how to react. There are no assigned roles when a tech firm with a glimmering reputation creates a controversy. We implicitly give them a break, regardless of the merits. That’s a bias we should probably correct.
On Friday, ProPublica revealed that Facebook allows advertisers a tool that enables them to exclude “ethnic affinities” like African-Americans or Hispanics from viewing their ads. (Facebook does not ask users about their race, but collects data based on posts they like or comment on.) This goes well beyond targeting different styles of advertising to certain groups, which is common. Instead, it specifically prevents a black or Hispanic Facebook user from seeing a particular ad.