Calling on HUD to Investigate Facebook’s Discriminatory Advertising Practices

Housing, Racial Justice

Social media has become a dominant fixture in American life. Millions of Americans use social media daily to stay in touch with friends and family, and in the course of their jobs and careers.  Social media companies – and Facebook in particular – have in turn become adept at mining user data and allowing businesses to target specific audiences for their advertising.

While this type of targeted advertising can be beneficial, it has enormous ramifications for how our anti-discrimination laws are enforced.  Technological tools that allow sophisticated targeting in advertising can easily be used to exclude communities of color – a 21st century version of old-fashioned red-lining when used in the housing context.

Most problematic are the options within Facebook’s location targeting service. With Facebook’s tools an advertiser can target geographic regions, but within the targeted areas exclude unwanted locales.  For instance, an advertiser targeting Boston may exclude zip codes of predominantly minority neighborhoods, such as the 02119 zip code where Roxbury lies. When the advertiser does so, a map of the targeted area is shaded blue, while the excluded zip codes are outlined and shaded in red – a literal form of the prohibited practice of redlining.

In this manner, Facebook’s ad platform provides advertisers with powerful tools to exclude communities of color – a prohibited practice under the Fair Housing Act. It is incumbent upon HUD to address this issue proactively, through investigation of Facebook’s practices.

HUD should also issue guidance to internet-based advertising platforms more generally, addressing this potential for 21st century redlining and setting forth best practices to avoid the problem. HUD guidance should further outline ways in which internet-based hate speech can impact fair housing laws and advise companies on how to avoid this liability.