A Blog by Jonathan Low


Mar 23, 2016

Straight Outta CompData: Facebook's Ad Platform Now Guesses At Your Race Based on Your Online Behavior

Marketers have segmented and targeted different ads at different audiences for decades. That people of disparate races, ethnicities, religions and nationalities might receive an ad for the same product but with a twist reflecting perceptions of their affinities was just considered intelligent focusing.

The issue now is that given the power of algorithms to squeeze out all manner of meaning from data, consumers and voters are concerned that the same techniques used to sell hair products may now be used to determine who can see new apartments, get what sort of health care, qualify for scholarship aid or otherwise be granted benefits - and, conversely, incur penalties - based on those same factors.

Facebook, it should be noted, vehemently denies it is profiling anyone for any reason. It's just creating an 'ethnic affinity' so you can get more of what you like. Bro. JL

Annalee Newitz reports in ars technica:

If you saw a trailer for Straight Outta Compton on Facebook, it was targeted at you based on your race—or, at least, based on what Facebook thinks is your race. People identified by the company as white, black, or Hispanic were shown different versions of the trailer. This is part of Facebook's new "ethnic affiliation" marketing, which effectively resembles racial profiling with a big data advertising twist.
If you saw a trailer for Straight Outta Compton on Facebook, it was targeted at you based on your race—or, at least, based on what Facebook thinks is your race. People identified by the company as white, black, or Hispanic were shown different versions of the trailer. This is part of Facebook's new "ethnic affiliation" marketing, which effectively resembles racial profiling with a big data advertising twist.
Universal digital marketing exec Doug Neil described the race-based marketing for Straight Outta Compton at South by Southwest. Business Insider sums it up:
Neil credited part of [the film's success] to a specialized Facebook marketing effort led by Universal’s “multicultural team” in conjunction with its Facebook team. They created tailored trailers for different segments of the population....The “general population” (non-African American, non-Hispanic) wasn’t familiar with N.W.A., or with the musical catalog of Ice Cube and Dr. Dre, according to Neil. They connected to Ice Cube as an actor and Dr. Dre as the face of Beats, he said. The trailer marketed to them on Facebook had no mention of N.W.A. but sold the movie as a story of the rise of Ice Cube and Dr. Dre.
The trailer marketed to African Americans was completely different. Universal assumed this segment of the population had a baseline familiarity with N.W.A. “They put Compton on the map,” Neil said. This trailer opens with the word N.W.A. and continues to lean on it heavily throughout.
The two trailers aren't just mildly different—they look like they're advertising two completely different films. The version for white users, below, comes across like a gangster movie. It emphasizes the violence of the group, showing them brandishing semi-automatics, clashing with police, and walking through what appear to be riots. We only see the actors without seeing any of the actual members of N.W.A. who appear in the film. It looks like a scripted drama and not a biography of real people.

The version of the trailer for Straight Outta Compton that was shown to an audience Facebook calls "non multicultural" (specifically, an audience that doesn't include presumed African American, Hispanic, or Asian American users).
But the version of the trailer for black users, below, plainly depicts the film as a biography. We see members of N.W.A. talking about how their music was "protest art" that reflected the horrible conditions in LA ghettos of the 1980s. A quiet ripple of music swells behind them as they talk to people about what N.W.A. meant to them, and the movie comes across as a reverent retelling of how these important African American artists rose to fame. We don't see any violence until over a minute into the trailer, after it has been contextualized as "protest" imagery created by the very relatable, beloved members of N.W.A.

The version of the trailer for Straight Outta Compton that was shown to what Facebook calls "multicultural ethnic affinity African American" audiences.
Facebook has been pushing its "ethnic affinity" targeting since late 2014, courting advertisers who want to deliver ads just to the Hispanic community, for example, or who want to create separate campaigns for, say, white users versus Asian American users. Facebook currently offers advertisers four ethnic demographics: non-multicultural (presumably meaning white users), African American, Asian American, and Hispanic. For advertisers interested in multicultural marketing, Facebook offers a quick tutorial in what multicultural affinity groups are and why an advertiser might want to reach them.
In the tutorial, Facebook is careful to avoid terminology that makes it appear that the company is in fact doing racial or ethnic targeting, even though the service is called "ethnic affinity" targeting:
The diversity of the US is more than an ethnic biodiversity. These groups of people have a rich diversity of culture, which can include many things, such as beliefs, traditions, music, aesthetics, or language. The people in the US who have demonstrated affinity for the cultures of these groups make up the US Multicultural Affinity audiences.
The word “affinity” can generally be defined as a relationship like a marriage, as a natural liking, and as a similarity of characteristics. We are using the term “Multicultural Affinity” to describe the quality of people who are interested in and likely to respond well to multicultural content. What we are referring to in these affinity groups is not their genetic makeup, but their affinity to the cultures they are interested in.
The Facebook multicultural targeting solution is based on affinity, not ethnicity. This provides advertisers with an opportunity to serve highly relevant ad content to affinity-based audiences.
Facebook carefully describes ethnicity as "affinities... a similarity of characteristics" and not "genetic" (even though race isn't genetic, either). But Facebook's descriptions make it obvious that this is about marketing to racial groups, not people who share "a natural liking." Each group is described next to pictures that show members of the target race rather than random people simply engaging in cultural activities associated with "beliefs, traditions, music, aesthetics, or language."
In a screenshot of the tool shown below, "ethnic affinity" is listed as a "demographic," a term that is generally used to describe factual information about a person, like income level, race, and age. For something like affiliation, which Facebook claims is based on cultural interests and feelings, marketers would typically use the term "psychographic." But the circumstantial evidence—as well as plain old common sense—suggests that this tool is aimed at targeting certain ads at people based on their race or ethnicity.

Enlarge / Facebook provides marketers with this screenshot of their multicultural marketing tool. Note that ethnicity is called a "demographic," which contradicts the idea that it's just a "cultural connection."
Given that Facebook users are not required to list a racial or ethnic identity in their profiles, how does Facebook piece together a person's "affinities?" At South by Southwest, Facebook entertainment exec Jim Underwood gave the audience a taste of what goes into the company's classification system. Business Insider explains:
To construct an "African American affinity segment," Facebook would look at indicators like whether someone was a member of an African American Chamber of Commerce Facebook group. When many of these indicators are taken into account simultaneously, it allows Facebook to define the "affinity" segment.
So even if you don't give Facebook your race or ethnic identity, the company is still using everything else you tell it to figure that ethnic identity out—including your interests, your friends, and the organizations you say you belong to. This is a pretty typical "big data" problem, but there are limits to its effectiveness. A black person who speaks Japanese and goes to anime conventions, for example, might get pegged as Asian American. A white person who likes gangster rap might have gotten the "black" ad for Straight Outta Compton. As Clover Hope remarks wryly over at Jezebel, this kind of affiliation marketing means that Rachel Dolezal—the white woman who passed as a black woman and became a local NAACP leader—would probably have gotten the version of the Straight Outta Compton trailer targeted toward a black audience.
Now that Facebook is building up information on the racial identities of its users, there's one obvious question: Will anyone other than marketers be interested in that data?

Follow up:
On Friday, we reported that Facebook has a marketing tool that targets groups based on what the company believes your race is after assessing your activity. Today, Facebook reps explained to Ars how this targeting works—and why it isn't really about race or ethnicity. Instead, they say it's about ethnic activities and interests.
It sounds confusing because Facebook is trying to do two contradictory things. The company wants to offer advertisers access to multicultural communities, but it also wants to claim that it isn't identifying users by their races. So how exactly do you become part of an "ethnic affinity" target group without being targeted as an ethnicity? Reps say Facebook never looks at census data, names, photos, or private information. Instead, they focus on what language you speak, where you're from, and what interests you declare. Let's say you are a fan of BET and have shown an interest in #BlackLivesMatter—well, then, you might be categorized as part of an African-American ethnic affinity.

That doesn't mean that Facebook has identified you as a black person, Facebook reps hasten to say. It just means that you seem like you would be interested in black culture or activities. "They like African-American content," one rep told Ars. "But we cannot and do not say to advertisers that they are ethnically black. Facebook does not have a way for people to self-identify by race or ethnicity on the platform."Whatever Facebook is calling these groups, however, the company has had to sit down and make lists of items that will be used to signal the ethnic affinities of Asian-Americans, African-Americans, and Hispanics (the three multicultural groups that advertisers can currently target). They may not be assembling lists of who is an Asian-American and who isn't, but they are cobbling together ethnic stereotypes and deciding which of its users fit into them.

Facebook's vision of ethnic identity

But Facebook insists—correctly—that the process is a lot more complicated and nuanced than that. The company actually has a fairly sophisticated notion of ethnic identity: they would not market something like the NWA biopic Straight Outta Compton to everyone Facebook has identified as part of the African-American affinity group. Instead, they would look for people who also like rap music or who have shown an interest in NWA. The company is very aware that just because someone is African-American does not necessarily mean they will like rap. Likewise, just because someone is Asian American doesn't mean they like anime or Master of None.
In academic terms, Facebook is describing the difference between "essentialist identity" and "performative identity." An essentialist approach to target marketing would assume that anyone who is African-American will have certain core traits that are shared among all African-Americans. The performative approach suggests that people are a collection of actions and that what you do every day says more about who you are than whether you have dark skin or were born in Taiwan. Facebook is marketing to the way you perform your identity on its social network, not the box you check on the census under "race."
Facebook is describing the difference between "essentialist" and "performative" identity.
 So why are Facebook users so anxious about this form of advertising? After all, target marketing based on ethnicity has been around for decades. Every time you watch BET or read Essence magazine, you get ads targeted at African-Americans. When you watch Univision, you get ads that are targeted at Hispanics.Even though target marketing based on ethnicity is nothing new, it has always been opt-in before. But those going on Facebook are just behaving like members of the general population. Even when a Facebook user says they like #BlackLivesMatter, they don't feel like asking to opt in to an ethnic identity—it's just one of many interests that define that person. For marketers at Facebook, that's the point. They want to monetize every aspect of your identity, whether that's an ethnic affiliation or a preference for bean thread noodles.
The problem is that profiling somebody's ethnic affinities has a lot more cultural baggage attached to it—to say the least—than profiling somebody's taste in restaurants. And that's why Facebook's multicultural targeting scheme is getting a lot more pushback than the company bargained for.


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