In 2019, Facebook settled a lawsuit with civil rights groups following the revelation that advertisers using their platform could use the targeting options to exclude many specific demographics from seeing their ads. It’s now more difficult for an unscrupulous advertiser to use Facebook’s platform to discriminate.
However, even when you remove human bias from the system, Facebook’s ad delivery algorithms can result in biased outcomes. According to research from Northeastern University, Facebook sometimes displays ads to highly skewed audiences based on the content of the ad.
By purchasing ads and inputting neutral targeting options, the researchers found that the algorithmically determined audience for job ads for cleaners, secretaries, nurses, and preschool teachers was mostly women. The job ads for fast food workers, supermarket cashiers, and taxi drivers skewed toward Black users. The studies show that by targeting “relevant” users, these systems can reinforce existing disparities in our interests and our opportunities.