Facebook is making changes to its ad systems in the wake of an investigative report that its software enabled advertisers to find viewers who had identified themselves as “Jew-Haters” and other anti-Semitic terms on the social network, the company said Wednesday.
The changes were announced Wednesday afternoon in a Facebook post written by Facebook’s chief operating officer, Sheryl Sandberg. That fact that Sandberg weighed in is a reflection of how the reports have shaken the highest rungs of the company.
“The fact that hateful terms were even offered as options was totally inappropriate and a fail on our part,” Sandberg wrote. “We never intended or anticipated this functionality being used this way — and that is on us. And we did not find it ourselves — and that is also on us.”
In the post, Sandberg said the company would be stepping up enforcement by adding more human review and oversight to the company’s automated systems.
The changes come at a moment when Facebook is reckoning with a growing number of nefarious ways its largely automated systems can be manipulated. Earlier this month, Facebook revealed that a Russian “troll farm” had spent $100,000 on politically oriented ads during the election, and the company shut down 470 Russian-associated pages and accounts. That investigation continues, and the company has provided information to congressional investigators and to Special Counsel Robert S. Mueller III, who is leading the Russia probe.
The company's latest issue with anti-Semitic ads arose out of an investigation from the non-profit news outlet ProPublica. Using Facebook’s ad-categories, ProPublica was able to target the Facebook feeds of 2,300 users who had expressed interest in the topics of “Jew Hater,” “How to burn jews” or “History of why jews ruin the world.”
Those users had violated Facebook’s policies by entering the offensive terms into the employer or education sections of their profiles. Facebook’s ad system allows advertisers to target by employer or education and allows people to suggest their own categories.
After the anti-Semitic targeting capabilities were exposed, Facebook disabled the tool.
In her post, Sandberg said the company had reinstated 5,000 of the most commonly used terms, such as "nurse, teacher, or dentistry." Additional targeting options, she said, would have "more manual review," but she didn't specify whether each new targeting option would be reviewed manually or whether the company would need to hire more people to conduct so many manual reviews. Facebook did not respond to questions on the matter.
Sandberg also said that the company was creating a program to encourage people to report abuses of its ad system. Facebook already has systems through which people can report and flag abusive content, as well as content they suspect is fake news.
Sandberg's style is to speak from personal experience, which she evoked in her blog post. "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.