This topic is a confluence of weedy tech stuff and public policy. Both passion points for me. Which means there’s a high risk I turn this into a 5,000 word monster. So I’m going to go short.
You may have heard that Facebook recently reached a settlement about what kind of targeting it allows people to use for protected categories like jobs, housing, and credit. If you haven’t heard about it, read this Wired piece.
Now you can’t target ads in those categories based on things like age, gender, race, and zip code.
Ok. Great. I’m a racist landlord and now I can’t create an exclusionary targeting audience of people with a Hispanic “ethnic affinity.” Everybody wins right?
Wrong. Because things like this are what happens when journalists, lawyers, and activists don’t understand how modern advertising actually works. Nobody’s saying — or even asking — the actually important thing.
Is Facebook rewiring its ad platform to prevent the algorithms from auto-optimizing ad performance based on those criteria? Because, in terms of accomplishing an ultimate objective of people seeing job, housing, and credit opportunities at relatively equal rates, ad targeting isn’t even all that impactful.
It’s the conversion optimization algorithms that really determine who actually sees the ads. Heck, Facebook even has this whole advertiser evaluation thing that’s basically 50%, “Are you micromanaging or are you setting broad parameters and just letting the algorithms do the real work?”
So the TLDR here is, Without putting constraints on how the delivery of ads are optimized, this is a showpiece concession."
So, if the targeting concessions won’t have a huge impact on outcomes, why the focus? Why the celebration? Because modern marketing is such an opaque, weedy, specialized field that it can be hard for “commoners” to really understand what lever to apply pressure to. Because Targeting is the thing with a public-facing UI that people can screen shot. Because it’s easy to communicate in the :45 news segment.
In other words, it’s an effigy. A stand-in for the real problem. And all we got is Facebook agreeing to let people burn the effigy in public while the real problem lives on in the background.
And if even Wired can’t get it right, we’re probably in trouble.