Facebook to tighten ad targeting after antisemitic 'fail', says Sheryl Sandberg

Yolanda Curtis
September 21, 2017

The independent news website ProPublica found this week that it is possible for advertisers to pay Facebook to target their content to people who indicate an interest in topics such as "Jew hater", "How to burn jews [sic]", or, "History of why jews [sic] ruin the world". "Hate has no place on Facebook - and as a Jew, as a mother, and as a human being, I know the damage that can come from hate", she said.

"The fact that hateful terms were even offered as options was totally inappropriate and a fail on our part", Sandberg wrote.

The changes come at a moment when Facebook is reckoning with a growing number of nefarious ways its largely automated systems can be manipulated. It also is working on a way for users to report any misuses of ads that go against Facebook's standards. "And we did not find it ourselves - and that is also on us", she said.

In a post on Facebook, she added: "Seeing those words made me disgusted and disappointed - disgusted by these sentiments and disappointed that our systems allowed this. We removed them and when that was not totally effective, we disabled that targeting section in our ad systems".

"Such targeting has always been in violation of our policies and we are taking more steps to enforce that now", she said. About 2,300 Facebook users wrote on their profiles that they studied "Jew hater" in college, for example, automatically generating the phrase as an advertising target. To fix the problem, Facebook is adding human review to the process, hoping it will be a firewall against something like this happening again.

Moreover, it has manually reviewed targeting options and is reinstating the 5,000 most common ad targets.

The latest controversy over Facebook's ad targeting comes as the tech firm faces criticism over the type of ads that run on the social media site. More importantly, the ProPublica investigation focused on offensive targeting rather than offensive content, and information about how a given ad was targeted is not accessible to users.

Finally, Sandberg said Facebook is also going to encourage people to alert the company about abuses of its ads system.

The stories are being seen as a wake-up call for companies that rely on algorithms to handle the heavy lifting on their platforms - without any thought given to the potential for abuse.

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