It seems like just a few weeks ago, Facebook was being dragged through the headlines due to consumer anger over both the social media company’s privacy practices and the pervasiveness of “fake news” on the network. Since then, Facebook has scored big PR wins by announcing the ouster of tens of millions of “fake” or “troll” accounts and banishing them from the network.
Now, though, Facebook is back on the bad side of the headlines, and, this time, the allegations are familiar to many in Silicon Valley: Facebook is being accused of gender bias. Former Facebook job seekers have filed charges with the Equal Employment Opportunity Commission alleging that Facebook helped nine employers “exclude female candidates from recruiting campaigns” by using Facebook.
This time the allegations are not being leveled against the corporate office, but against the platform’s ad building functionality, which allows users to “target” specific ads toward certain demographics, including age, race, income, and, yes, gender. The purpose of the ad features is to help marketers reach prospects that would be most likely to buy or use their products. And, while the process is necessarily exclusionary, it’s also very popular among Facebook’s business users. They like knowing who’s seeing their ads, and they want that feature to continue.
Not everyone is happy, though, Attorneys for the plaintiffs in the case say Facebook’s capacity for micro-targeting is discriminatory. A report about the case explained it this way: “The disclosure for the ‘problematic’ ads said the users received them because they were men, often between a certain age and in a certain location…”
Facebook’s response is simple and straightforward. Spokespeople for the social network said the company is not responsible for the content of the ads, because the prospective employers could have easily created similar ads that were meant to appeal to different demographics. The suit counters that the ads allow companies to “skew their applicant pool male…” and that other social networks, such as LinkedIn and Google had offered to “remove ads that discriminated against a protected class…”
When questioned by reporters from the New York Times about how Facebook would respond to these allegations, the company said it was “reviewing the ads” but “generally did not remove job ads that exclude a gender…”
This position statement puts Facebook in the somewhat unique and entirely unenviable position of being, currently, hammered by people on both the political left and the political right. As the left accuses Facebook of racial and gender discrimination, the right says Facebook is targeting conservative content for removal or otherwise treating right-leaning political speech unfairly. So, despite being, far and away, the most popular social media platform in the market, Facebook is facing criticism from all sides, for offering content and features that many other users absolutely love.
At some point the company will make a ruling on this, and other, cases, and doing so will frustrate or alienate at least one segment of their user base. How they communicate that message will go a long way toward determining the depth, extent, and results of that frustration.