Facebook makes money by charging advertisers to reach just the right audience for their message — even when that audience is made up of people interested in the perpetrators of the Holocaust or explicitly neo-Nazi music.
Despite promises of greater oversight following past advertising scandals, a Los Angeles Times review shows Facebook has continued to allow advertisers to target hundreds of thousands of users the social media company believes are curious about topics such as “Joseph Goebbels,” “Josef Mengele,” “Heinrich Himmler,” the neo-Nazi punk band Skrewdriver and Benito Mussolini’s long-defunct National fascist Party.
Experts say that this practice runs counter to the company’s stated principles and can help fuel radicalization online.
“What you’re describing, where a clear hateful idea or narrative can be amplified to reach more people, is exactly what they said they don’t want to do and what they need to be held accountable for,” said Oren Segal, director of the Anti-Defamation League’s center on extremism.
After being contacted by the Los Angeles Times, Facebook said that it would remove many of the audience groupings from its ad platform.
“Most of these targeting options are against our policies and should have been caught and removed sooner,” Facebook spokesman Joe Osborne said. “While we have an ongoing review of our targeting options, we clearly need to do more, so we’re taking a broader look at our policies and detection methods.”
Facebook’s broad reach and sophisticated advertising tools brought in a record $55 billion in ad revenue in 2018.
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Profit margins stayed above 40 percent, thanks to a high degree of automation, with algorithms sorting users into marketable subsets based on their behavior — then choosing which ads to show them.
But the lack of human oversight also has brought the company controversy.
In 2017, Pro Publica found the company sold ads based on any user-generated phrase, including “Jew hater” and “Hitler did nothing wrong.”
Following the murder of 11 congregants at a synagogue in Pittsburgh in 2018, the Intercept, an online news publication, found Facebook gave advertisers the ability to target users interested in the anti-Semitic “white genocide conspiracy theory,” which the suspected killer cited as inspiration before the attacks.
This month, the Guardian highlighted the ways that YouTube and Facebook boost anti-vaccine conspiracy theories, leading Rep. Adam Schiff, D-Calif., to question whether the company was promoting misinformation.
Facebook has promised since 2017 that humans review every ad targeting category. It announced this past fall the removal of 5,000 audience categories that risked enabling abuse or discrimination.