Facebook today announced that advertisers will not be able to target users based upon potentially sensitive topics such as health, sexual orientation, religious and political beliefs, or other personal information. Starting in the new year, Facebook will stop targeting certain interest groups like "Lung cancer awareness", "LGBT culture" or "Jewish holiday".
The company stated that it took a difficult decision to eliminate Detailed Targeting options. It also acknowledged that input from policymakers, civil rights experts and other stakeholders was a key factor in its decision. Any major change in ad policy could have serious ramifications as advertising revenue is Facebook's largest source of income.
Facebook can target users based upon information in their profiles, such as their gender, age and location. TechCrunch was told by a representative that Facebook has never allowed users to be targeted based on their sexual orientation. Instead, the ads that will be removed are those that are served based upon your profile's interests categories.
Based on your activity, Facebook may assign these interest categories to you profile. Based on your engagement with Facebook content, these categories might be assigned to you. For example, "American Jewish Culture," "LGBT Rights" or "Barack Obama." Advertisers will no longer have the ability to target ads based upon such interests starting January 19. You can still target other interest groups, such as "rock climbing" or "knitting," but they won't be considered sensitive. There are many thousands of these categories, both sensitive and not.
You can view your profile's interest categories by going to Settings and Privacy > Settings>>> Ad Settings > Categories > Categories that reach you > Interest Categories. You can choose to not receive ads that are based on your interest.
The change in ad policies comes as Meta, the newly renamed parent company of the Facebook platform, faces increased scrutiny following a series senate hearings relating to documents that Frances Haugen leaked. Meta is defending itself against the increasing number of documents being leaked to the media, claiming that journalists have misrepresented its actions.
Facebook's ad policies have been a concern for many years. Facebook set limits on the types of political ads that could exist in the lead up to the 2020 U.S. Presidential Election. After the U.S. Department of Housing and Urban Development filed a complaint against Facebook alleging that it had helped landlords and home-sellers violate the Fair Housing Act, Facebook made a similar move to remove over 5,000 targeting options from ads in 2018. After a ProPublica report, Facebook had previously disabled "ethnic affinity targeting" for housing, credit, and employment ads in 2016. It is illegal to target ads for housing or employment based on specific demographics. ProPublica also reported that Facebook had removed ad targeting based upon anti-Semitic interest groups.
In a blog post, the company stated that it wanted to "better match people's evolving expectations about how advertisers may reach them through our platform" and respond to feedback from policymakers, civil rights experts and other stakeholders regarding the importance of advertisers not abusing the targeting options they make available. We know that this decision to eliminate Detailed Targeting options was difficult and may have a negative impact on some businesses and organizations.
Although Facebook claims that it made these decisions because of concerns about data being misused by bad actors, some stakeholders were concerned that there could be instances where this data could be used in positive ways. If someone is interested in diabetes awareness, they can be connected to nonprofits that treat it.
Facebook still offers businesses many tools to reach a particular audience. Facebook advertisers can target users whose iPhones have opted in for ad tracking. As the company points out in its blog post, businesses can also use engagement custom audiences, lookalike audience and other methods to reach users.