Facebook decided which users are interested in Nazis—and let advertisers target them directly
Facebook makes money by charging advertisers to reach just the right audience for their message–even when that audience is made up of people interested in the perpetrators of the Holocaust or explicitly neo-Nazi music. Despite promises of greater oversight following past advertising scandals, a Times review shows that Facebook has continued to allow advertisers to target hundreds of thousands of users the social media firm believes are curious about topics such as “Joseph Goebbels,” “Josef Mengele,” “Heinrich Himmler,” the neo-nazi punk band Skrewdriver and Benito Mussolini’s long-defunct National Fascist Party.
Experts say that this practice runs counter to the company’s stated principles and can help fuel radicalization online. “What you’re describing, where a clear hateful idea or narrative can be amplified to reach more people, is exactly what they said they don’t want to do and what they need to be held accountable for,” said Oren Segal, director of the Anti-Defamation League’s center on extremism. After being contacted by The Times, Facebook said that it would remove many of the audience groupings from its ad platform.
Facebook’s broad reach and sophisticated advertising tools brought in a record $55 billion in ad revenue in 2018. Profit margins stayed above 40%, thanks to a high degree of automation, with algorithms sorting users into marketable subsets based on their behavior — then choosing which ads to show them. But the lack of human oversight has also brought the company controversy.
In 2017, Pro Publica found that the company sold ads based on any user-generated phrase, including “Jew hater” and “Hitler did nothing wrong.” Following the murder of 11 congregants at a synagogue in Pittsburgh in 2018, the Intercept found that Facebook gave advertisers the ability to target users interested in the anti-Semitic “white genocide conspiracy theory,” which the suspected killer cited as inspiration before the attacks.