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Facebook ads target Black users with racially biased algorithm

Study reveals Facebook’s ad algorithm disproportionately targets Black users with for-profit college ads
Photo credit: / Piotr Swat

A recent study conducted by university researchers in 2024 revealed that Facebook’s advertising algorithm may be disproportionately targeting Black users with ads for for-profit colleges. This finding raises concerns about racial discrimination in the algorithmic delivery of educational opportunities.

Investigating Meta’s advertising practices

Meta, the parent company of Facebook and Instagram, has not been transparent about why certain posts reach specific users. Academics from Princeton and the University of Southern California decided to investigate by purchasing ads and tracking their performance among Facebook users. Their research uncovered potential racial discrimination in Meta’s ad delivery system, which could pose legal and ethical issues.

For-profit colleges under scrutiny

The study focused on for-profit institutions like DeVry and Grand Canyon University, which have faced legal action for deceptive advertising practices. Researchers argue that these colleges have a history of targeting students of color with predatory marketing, often resulting in poor educational outcomes and job prospects.

Methodology of the study

The research team created paired ad campaigns for public and for-profit institutions to compare their delivery among Black and White users. Utilizing North Carolina voter registration data, which includes racial information, they built a sample audience split evenly between Black and White individuals from different regions. This allowed them to infer the racial demographics of the audience based on ad locations.

Findings and implications

The results indicated that Facebook’s algorithm showed Black users more ads for for-profit colleges, while White users saw more ads for state colleges. This imbalance suggests a bias within the algorithm, despite Meta’s claims of striving for fairness and prohibiting discriminatory advertising practices.

In response to past criticisms, Facebook has removed the ability to target ads by race. However, the study suggests that even with balanced ad targeting, Meta’s algorithms could perpetuate historical racial biases, potentially without advertisers’ knowledge.

Meta’s response and industry challenges

Meta spokesperson Daniel Roberts stated that addressing fairness in ads is a complex issue and that the company is working with various stakeholders to improve fairness in its ad system. Despite past reports of discriminatory ad targeting options, Meta is developing technology to address these concerns.

As the conversation around algorithmic bias continues, this study highlights the need for greater transparency and accountability in digital advertising, especially as it affects communities of color.

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