What advertisers should learn from Facebook’s recent scandal

Tiana Meador

By no question has Facebook allowed advertisers to target individuals down to a tee on their personal information. Yet the most recent lawsuit that the social media giant has gotten involved with is the idea that by providing such information, the company can actually exclude people when it comes to credit, loan, and housing opportunities. 

Facebook is under fire from The Justice Department to remove these tools; however, this action would thus make the platform less valuable to digital advertisers. That being said, although valuable, the idea of pinpointing demographics and thus excluding individual types of race is an act of racism at its core and an unethical practice of advertising.

Massive, detailed knowledge that is collected by Facebook defines an individual so well that it, in turn, exposes consumers to inadvertently racist targeting against their will. Therefore, when considering this issue from social, ethical and legal standpoints, the racist exclusion of individuals is at large a social problem but most definitely ethically incorrect from the advertiser standpoint. Form a legal standpoint, by providing these racial markers, Facebook is violating  the U.S. Fair Housing Act. 

As practices in this industry continue to evolve, there is a developing gray area where consumers do not necessarily understand all the information they are providing, thus making the practice almost exploitative and bringing up the idea that advertisers themselves must regulate the industry.

In the FTC Staff Report: “Although comments have helped to frame the policy issues and inform the public understanding of online behavioral advertising, the practices continue to evolve and significant work remains” (iv). The report then goes on to state that “a majority of the Commission recommended that Congress enact “backstop legislation” to address online profiling” (7) but however, reaffirms the position that Congress did not enact anything. 

Camouflaged ads, known to the community as native ads, made to look like content rather than ads, unethically gather information and steer consumers in one direction. Therefore, in Facebook’s situation, these individuals never were exposed- they were given an inequitable opportunity, and it would be fair to assume they were unaware of the opportunities available because of the information they unknowingly disclosed for profiling. 

Facebook’s process then spirals: the ads get fed to the “prime” target, which grows the advertiser’s profiling archive of white individuals, allowing the ad to be sneakily disseminated across white individuals’ feeds. This process parallels the 2016 elections issue, in which individuals unknowingly created political bubbles on Facebook, wherein they only consumed the information that was most suitable for their political alignment. 

The whole system is flawed in the fact that is does not disseminate information equally, which is the whole basis of social media in the first place- to reach a large audience. Understandably, it is viewed as more efficient because better targeting means better sales, etc; however when it comes to the legality of what is actually being advertised, Facebook fell short with its algorithms.

Personal information shared amongst marketing conglomerates can be considered a privacy violation; however, information spread amongst numerous sources holds value beyond a general consumer’s knowledge. Although this information is valuable to advertisers, the tracking of online behavior can have various angles when it comes to pinpointing what the consumers value, thus having detrimental implications when it comes to targeting. 

What is commonly addressed is the anxiety around privacy infiltration, and this anxiety was nonetheless reaffirmed when African-American individuals learned their information unknowingly got them discriminated against. 

Advertisers must also combat the idea that, although privacy is concerning, actions of information-sharing say otherwise, and this is where I personally can understand the grayness in the ethics of targeting. The advertising industry must charge themselves with the responsibility of self-industry regulation, because consumers are borderline naive.

Having this base understanding that, although consumers share, they are still somewhat anxious, is where the end goal of advertising (to gather traffic, sales, attention) must be reassessed. Without reassessment, the public relations aspect falls apart because the advertiser did not stand in the shoes of the consumer, therefore garnering negative attention, and this is how Facebook’s overtly detailed profiling got them into trouble. 

The entire Facebook scandal that has charged the company with $5 million to the parties and a $2.5 million settlement with the NFHA to train advertisers, is simply due to their lack of approaching the dissemination of demographics to advertisers ethically and in a socially responsible manner.

Facebook’s screw-up should set the bar for a better understanding of how digital advertisers should approach targeting. 

Although it is efficient to use OBA and curated native ads to understand consumers effectively,  there are growing privacy concerns that cannot be ignored. Considering a B2C corporate marketing standpoint, wherein businesses consider themselves in the shoes of a consumer, should be a pivotal strategy to avoid undermining trustability. 

Advertisers should not only charge themselves with the notion that they should deliver an effective ad, but they should deliver it in a socially responsible manner that is empathetic to ethical concerns. By doing so, they will avoid legal slip-ups that occur in the demographically reliant curation process of the advertisements on any interface. 

Why should they carry this responsibility? Because actions carried forth by consumers online is at large too naive. Therefore to benefit both, the advertiser can use targeting but must first hear out their targeted consumer to avoid what just happened to Facebook.