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New Study Affirms Age and Gender Bias in Facebook Ad Algorithms

Global Witness, an international NGO that investigates human rights abuses and environmental crimes, recently issued a report on Facebook advertising. The organization created two intentionally discriminatory job ads, one targeted to exclude women and the other to exclude individuals over 55. They clicked on Facebook’s non-discrimination policy and submitted the ads; Facebook accepted both ads. (The organization pulled the ads before they could be published.) Global Witness then posted four test ads with links to job vacancies for mechanics, preschool nurses, pilots, and psychologists. After checking the “Traffic/Link Clicks” option, designed to reach the individuals most likely to click on them, Global Witness looked to see where Facebook’s algorithm placed these ads.

Here are the results:

  • 96% of the people shown the ad for mechanic jobs were men
  • 95% of the people shown the ad for nursery nurse jobs were women
  • 75% of the people shown the ad for pilot jobs were men
  • 77% of the people shown the ad for psychologist jobs were women

Global Witness noted its findings from these ads placed in the United Kingdom mirror the results from similar investigations in the U.S. Earlier this year, researchers from the University of Southern California found Facebook’s ad system discriminated against women. In one example, the researchers placed an ad for a Domino’s pizza delivery driver and an ad for an Instacart driver. More men deliver pizza for Dominos, and more women work for Instacart. After reviewing Facebook's placement of those ads, the researchers found more women saw the Instacart job, and more men saw the Domino’s delivery job. In conducting a similar study on LinkedIn, the researchers found that its algorithm showed the Domino’s listing to as many women as it did to men, eliminating any gender bias.

Facebook has promised to do better in preventing discriminatory targeting on several previous occasions and the U.S. Global Watch is pursuing options against Facebook in the U.K. on this issue. Facebook responded to Global Watch’s report, stating that it is reviewing the findings.