Facebook has ditched ads that exclude racial and ethnic groups, and will now investigate how the feature was being used by advertisers.
The move follows an investigation by news organisation ProPublica, which discovered that the system could be abused by posting discriminatory ads on the social network.
Last week the news organization said it was able to buy dozens of rental housing ads on Facebook that were not shown to African Americans, mothers of high school kids, people interested in wheelchair ramps, Jews, expats from Argentina and Spanish speakers.
Facebook said it would look for a way to change the system so it could not be used “inappropriately”.
The move is the most serious response yet to concerns Facebook’s “multicultural affinity marketing” feature can be used to discriminate against minorities, particularly in sensitive areas where historically they have faced discrimination such as housing, credit and employment.
Facebook says it’s suspending the targeting capability while conducting an audit of how advertisers exclude groups. The audit will include groups beyond multicultural affinity such as the LGBT community and religious groups, the company said.
The results will be shared with the groups focused on discrimination in ads. Facebook will work with those groups to make improvements and then will publish the steps it’s taking, it said.
Ads that target specific racial and ethnic groups will be subject to additional review before appearing on Facebook, and advertisers will have to certify that they understand the law and anti-discrimination policies. These measures will be introduced over the next several weeks, Facebook says.
“Facebook’s decision to disable its multicultural affinity advertising function is an appropriate action until the serious concerns associated with that feature are remedied,” Rep. Robin Kelly (D-Illinois), a member of the Congressional Black Caucus and ranking member of the IT subcommittee, said in a statement.
Each ad was approved within minutes, according to ProPublica, which targeted these groups of users because they are protected under the federal Fair Housing Act. One ad for an apartment rental that excluded African Americans, Asian Americans and Spanish-speaking Hispanic audiences was approved in under a minute.