ProPublica Rebukes Facebook For Ageism In Ads, But Is The Reproach Fair?

Is enabling age targeting for online recruitment ads a form of discrimination?

Facebook, called out by ProPublica and The New York Times on Wednesday for the practice, says no.

“Used responsibly, age-based targeting for employment purposes is an accepted industry practice and for good reason,” Rob Goldman, Facebook’s VP of ads, responded in a blog post. “It helps employers recruit and people of all ages find work.”

It’s illegal for job ads to target people under 40 or discourage people over 40 from applying under the Age Discrimination in Employment Act (ADEA).

The US Equal Employment Opportunity Commission also has rules in place to protect workers and applicants from discrimination based on race, religion, sexual orientation, national origin, disability and other parameters. The same is true for housing ads and consumer financial products.

ProPublica and the Times characterized age-based targeting of recruitment ads through Facebook as a violation of the law. As proof of Facebook’s foul, ProPublica pointed to a cache of ads seen by readers in their news feed, including from Amazon, Northwestern Mutual, Verizon, USPS and even Facebook.

For example, it spoke with a social media strategist in his 50s who wasn’t shown an ad for a job in his field at HubSpot, but the same ad was shown to younger users. And State Farm ads collected by ProPublica were mainly targeted at people between 19 and 35.

Even so, Goldman argued that just showing certain job ads to specific age groups isn’t inherently discriminatory. An advertiser could be accused of doing the same thing by buying a billboard in a college town or an ad in a teen-focused magazine.

It’s quite possible that the ads flagged by ProPublica are one component of a larger marketing campaign with elements targeted at all age groups. And just because some younger users see age-targeted ads in their news feed, which they’re only seeing because they fall into the target demo, doesn’t mean that people older than 40 aren’t seeing different age-targeted ads that people in the younger demo don’t see.

In searching through its own recruitment ads, Facebook found examples of ad creative differing by context. An ad featuring a millennial would be targeted at a millennial, for example, while an ad targeting someone older than 40 might include a person with salt-and-pepper hair.

“These individual ads are part of broader-based recruitment efforts designed to reach all ages and all backgrounds, [and] we completely reject the allegation that these advertisements are discriminatory,” Goldman wrote.

Before it runs a campaign, Facebook also requires advertisers to certify that they understand the law and won’t use its tools to place discriminatory ads. It’s arguably the advertiser’s responsibility to adhere to the law.

This isn’t Facebook’s first tussle with ProPublica. Over the past year, the public interest watchdog has reported on anti-Semitic targeting categories available on the platform, how real estate marketers could suppress audiences by ethnicity and politically-charged Facebook ads that were chock full of malware.

All of these incidents were highly embarrassing for Facebook, which took a conciliatory tone in response to each scandal, promising to invest in better tech and more people.

“But in this case we disagree with ProPublica,” Goldman wrote. “We have carefully reviewed their concerns – and this time we disagree.”

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