In terms of ad preferences, Facebook lists your likes and dislikes and compiles information they infer about you by what links you engage with (like, share, click through) the most. The most maddening of these inferences is race, because they can’t come out and ask what race you are, they call it “Cultural Affinity.” There are already minority groups chomping at the bit to get Facebook to remove it, because it has led to more than one case of housing discrimination. Facebook insists that it’s just a cultural identity, not a way to actually determine race, but I believe this is untrue. In 2016, they mined for “ethnic affinity,” and had to quickly come up with neutral language to spin it. Oh, it’s not racial profiling. It’s an “affinity.” That it’s OK because Facebook does not have an official channel to report race. They’re not talking about the color of your skin, just saying that if you’re a member of the NAACP on Facebook, you’ll probably like ads targeted towards African Americans.
This is why I find it troubling, and my Facebook status yesterday:
I did that thing where you look up what Facebook thinks about you (in terms of ad preferences). Apparently, Facebook thinks I’m black. I have mixed feelings about this. I am proud of myself for posting so many things about inequality that Facebook has noticed. I am weirded out that Facebook thinks just because you post things about inequality that you must be a minority. It’s not that I care about being labeled African American. I care that so many white people don’t care that companies infer that I’m a minority because I do.
Here’s the thing. I looked it up, and there is no “Caucasian Cultural Affinity.” If Facebook believes you are white, there’s no Cultural Affinity at all. This is problematic because yet again, white is the default and non-white is a classification. It is especially troubling because 85% of Facebook’s daily active users are outside the United States and Canada, and non-white is the default in the rest of the world…. that I can identify. Some scientists do not consider race to be a valid identifier, and some do. But by and large the statistics I could find by world population say that Asian is the majority for the globe. I found a web site claiming racial population, but did not deem it a viable source of information.
It is a valid argument that race is invalid, considering that there are billions of people who have genetics from every continent. For marketing purposes, though, the current thinking seems utterly backward for all sorts of reasons…. the biggest being what are we missing by giving different audiences different ads? Why do you, as advertisers, only want to cater to people you think will already like you? Isn’t the whole point of advertising to reach out to new people rather than the ones already on board?
It causes more problems than it solves, because the information gathered can be used in nefarious ways. It is not as inert as you think.
For instance, you can find ways to advertise jobs to an overwhelmingly white audience, or perhaps real estate listings. Facebook was sued in November of 2016 for this very thing, and after looking through the docket, I can see no evidence that the case has been resolved. The closest is that Facebook made a motion to dismiss, then vacated the motion to continue mediation. But that was in October of 2017, and no official decision has come down (Disclaimer: I am not a lawyer or law student- if an official decision has come down and it hasn’t been published publicly, I wouldn’t be able to get into Lexis-Nexis to find it).
Here is the last order that is public facing:
By December 14, 2017, the parties shall file a joint status report addressing the status of the mediation efforts and, if appropriate, propose new dates for the hearing on Facebook’s Motion to Dismiss and Initial Case Management Conference.
I can find articles on Facebook claiming that they’re taking down the “Cultural Affinity” classification altogether, but mine is intact and sources referenced, again, aren’t viable.
I am going to be chewing on this for a while, because I think Facebook believes what it’s saying- “cultural affinity” is not race. However, intent and reality are not the same thing. There is a wide margin between Facebook’s claims and how the information is being used.
I am dismayed because instead of erasing divisions, we seem to be striving towards sustaining them, or finding new ones altogether.