The Color of Facebook: A Look at Discrimination Through Tech Platforms

Facebook Lets Advertisers Exclude Users by Race.” “Study Finds Some Uber and Lyft Drivers Racially Discriminate.” These headlines are disheartening, to say the least. With technological advancements come so many great things that make our lives more convenient, efficient, and fun. And yet, our deep seeded societal biases may threaten to dismantle the positive things that these services have brought to us.

Last week ProPublica released an article about Facebook’s advertising options, and how the site allows advertisers to exclude specific racial groups, through an option called “Ethnic Affinities,” from viewing certain ads. While this may seem simply like a problematic method of targeting consumer segments, it’s actually prohibited by federal law. Both the Fair Housing Act and the Civil Rights Act protect citizens from being discriminated against based on race, religion, gender, and a slew of other personal factors in advertisements.

Facebook responded by saying that it prohibits advertisers from “using the targeting options for discrimination, harassment, disparagement or predatory advertising practices.” However, the ad ProPublica test-ran that excluded persons of color was approved by Facebook a mere 15 minutes after it was submitted.

User biases exist among other tech services as well. A recent study published by the National Bureau of Economic Research (NBER) found that African-American riders faced racial discrimination by Uber and Lyft drivers. They “experienced statistically significant longer delay waiting for a trip request” through the two services, leading the organization to determine that at least some drivers discriminate on the basis of race. Furthermore, in Boston, riders with stereotypically African-American sounding names were twice as likely to have Uber rides canceled than people with white sounding names.

File photo of a  driver displaying Uber and Lyft ride sharing signs on his car windscreen in Santa Monica

In a reaction to the study on racism from ride-sharing services, Lyft released a statement, saying that “Because of Lyft, people living in underserved areas—which taxis have historically neglected—are now able to access convenient, affordable rides. And we provide this service while maintaining an inclusive and welcoming community, and do not tolerate any form of discrimination.” While this may be true, and while Lyft itself is not conducting discriminatory business, racism can clearly still manifest itself through its platform.

Airbnb has also dealt with problems of discrimination, which is to be expected, since its service draws many similarities to those provided by Uber or Lyft. Rental hosts can reject potential guests after viewing their profiles, and have been doing so on the basis of race, gender, age, and other identifying factors, according to a Harvard study on the matter.

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The company reacted to this finding and the accompanying criticism with several changes to its policies and rental processes. Starting tomorrow, Nov. 1, hosts must agree to a community commitment, which includes a nondiscriminatory policy, in order to continue renting to lodgers. The company is also reducing its use of profile pictures and has been expediting the use of instant bookings, allowing users to reserve instantly without host approval.

These actions may help reduce some discriminatory practices, but others question how effective they really will be. There are also more serious implications involved. For example, if minorities prefer using instant booking in a disproportionate number, then that may unintentionally create a two-tiered system within Airbnb reservations.

It’s a problem that services like Airbnb and Uber, while themselves not promoting or practicing discrimination, can provide a space in which users can project their own prejudices. It wasn’t supposed to be like this – the founders of these sharing economy companies probably didn’t even envision the complications that could arise from their ideas. In fact, at the very beginning, some actually hoped that Uber and Lyft would reduce denials of service based on race, an issue that had always occurred with taxi drivers.

Facebook, Uber, Airbnb and other companies should aim to take strides, if they have not already, in preventing discriminatory practices within the usage of their sites and apps. They’ve recognized the problem, and so has much of the public – which is why now is the best time to be proactive about the elephant in the room. And yet, even the most comprehensive service policies won’t solve the underlying societal issues of racism and discrimination that prevent users of color from easily renting an apartment for the weekend.

Racial discrimination has always been one of the uglier components of America, one that extends deep into its history and is unfortunately still thriving in many forms today. It’s sad to see that even as technology advances at a pace unimaginable to us just a decade ago, our attitudes on race have in many ways stagnated. We’ll only be able to fully utilize digital advancements and take advantage of great services like Uber and Airbnb if we move past our discriminatory habits. These companies can do as much as they want to prevent such occurrences from happening. But it’s up to us, the users, to enact the real change.

6 comments

  1. Aditya Murali · ·

    Very nice post! It is extremely troubling to hear about what’s going on at Facebook. What’s happening at Uber, Lyft, and Airbnb is absolutely terrible as well, but these statistics indicate issues with individuals and people who utilize these platforms. What’s happening at Facebook, however, has been approved by Facebook itself. I cannot believe that in this day and age, Facebook is doing something blatantly illegal, immoral, and unethical. I think Facebook needs to publicly apologize and get rid of this option immediately, or they are only going to dig themselves into a deeper hole.

  2. finkbecca · ·

    This is one of the best posts I’ve read so far. I think you highlighted some of the issues here in a really powerful, concise manner. I actually just got an e-mail the other day from Airbnb about their new “comprehensive effort to fight bias and discrimination in the Airbnb community.” Good that they recognize there is a problem and that they need to address it, but I’m not sure how effective it is just to have people sign something that says they won’t discriminate. I’m disappointed in Facebook for what they are allowing companies to do with advertising. I think there is obviously a larger societal problem here then what we see happening in these digital businesses. I’m glad you wrote this post, great job.

  3. vicmoriartybc · ·

    I was hoping someone would write about this issue this week, as it’s extremely important to the world of digital business, especially in today’s racially charged pre-election world. It’s really shocking to see that companies that we traditionally think of as being so 21st century and modern, such as Facebook and Uber, are engaging in the antiquated practice of discriminating against minorities. It makes me wonder what other companies are engaging in similar practices that we aren’t aware of yet. While it is not exactly the fault of the platform creators themselves, as you mentioned, I believe they all need to continue to do extensive damage control to combat these problems – perhaps this will inspire other companies to be proactive, so they can avoid these issues before they potentially happen.

  4. gabcandelieri · ·

    You make a great point in this post that it is not necessarily the companies (Uber, Airbnb, etc) that propagate this behavior, but rather it is the drivers/ hosts’ biases. However, it is the responsibility of the centralized intermediary between driver and rider to mitigate the effects of these biases in the hopes of eliminating them from their companies all together. The fact that Facebook has an advertising, “Ethnic Affinities” option is horrifying. I am wondering on what basis using that option would even be necessary and if other service companies acknowledge the implications of having such options. Ultimately, some would argue that it is up to the user to decide who they let ride in their car or sleep in their spare bedroom, but it is up to the company employing these hosts to eliminate racial prejudices from their practice in order to remain morally upright and respectable.

  5. It is interesting because Facebook makes such a large effort to not be involved in controversy. For example, in this election cycle, Facebook is purely algorithmic in its news sorting – allowing for now human bias towards the left or right side of the political spectrum. Here, Facebook is presenting an opportunity for people to potentially discriminate on race, a far more controversial move than I am used to seeing from Facebook. With that said, I understand the reasoning, consumers like targeted ads and Facebook wants to help people get in touch with the products they don’t know they want. I can understand how products related to religion, such as a christian book store, could warrant an ad targeted towards religious consumers. This makes sense in a business mindset, but I am still unsure of how I feel about it from a cultural / interpersonal perspective. Could this be the beginning of a slippery slope in which computer algorithms are able to explicitly target people by race? What if linked-in has or creates similar features for recruiters?

  6. Awesome post! I knew that Facebook markets ads based on target customer segments, but I didn’t think that within those segments, there would be an option to actually exclude or segregate users based on ethnicity or race. It’s never quite made sense to me why ethnicity/race would matter so much to advertisers because at the end of the day, the point of their ads is to attract as many customers as possible and increase revenue. It disappoints me that companies are so deep rooted in their bigotry that they would offer these kinds of ads, and that platforms like Facebook would turn a blind eye in allowing these “ethnicity affinities” to even exist.

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