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Facebook scraps ad targeting based on politics, race and other 'sensitive' topics

Facebook will no longer let advertisers target people with ads based on how interested the social network thinks they are in topics like politics, religion, or race.
Facebook will no longer let advertisers target people with ads based on how interested the social network thinks they are in topics like politics, religion, or race.

The parent company of Facebook will no longer let advertisers target people based on how interested the social network thinks they are in "sensitive" topics including health, race and ethnicity, political affiliation, religion and sexual orientation.

Meta, which makes most of its $86 billion in annual sales from advertising, said it's making the "difficult decision" in an effort to stop advertisers from using ad targeting to discriminate against or otherwise harm users.

"We've heard concerns from experts that targeting options like these could be used in ways that lead to negative experiences for people in underrepresented groups," Meta official Graham Mudd wrote in a blog post on Tuesday.

To be clear, the targeting options are not based on a user's demographics or personal attributes, but on whether they have interacted with content on Facebook that is related to specific topics.

The changes take effect on January 10 across Meta's apps, including Facebook, Instagram, and Messenger, and its audience network, which places ads on other smartphone apps.

The targeting options have been popular with advertisers who want to reach users who have shown interest in particular issues. But this kind of targeting has also caused headaches for the social network — like when advertisers used it to show housing ads only to some people based on race and religion. (Facebook changed some of its ad tools in 2019 following lawsuits alleging illegal discrimination in housing, employment and credit ads.)

Outside critics and Facebook's own employees have pressured the company for years to overhaul its approach to ads, pointing to advertisers that microtargeted people with tailored messages, excluded people based on protected characteristics, and targeted ads by using anti-Semitic phrases.

But the company has resisted until now, arguing that advertising is an important part of free speech — especially when it comes to political messaging.

Meta is not doing away with targeting altogether. It will still allow advertisers to target ads based on age, gender, location and a slew of other interest categories that it doesn't consider "sensitive."

In Tuesday's blog post, Mudd acknowledged the change will have a cost for some advertisers, including small businesses, non-profits and advocacy groups. They won't be able to use interest-based targeting to promote causes such as lung cancer awareness or World Diabetes Day, or target users interested in same-sex marriage or Jewish holidays, for example.

"This was not a simple choice and required a balance of competing interests where there was advocacy in both directions," he wrote.

Editor's note: Meta pays NPR to license NPR content.

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