Inquiries by ProPublica and BuzzFeed reveal Facebook and Google's advertising platforms allow advertisers to target campaigns to people based on race-related terms they type into their search bars. Examples of suggested phrases for advertisers include "black people ruin neighborhoods," "jewish control of banks" and "jew hater."
The reports were the result of experiments conducted by ProPublica on Facebook and BuzzFeed on Google, respectively.
ProPublica researched to see whether "Jew hater" was actually a category on Facebook's ad system based on a tip it received from an unnamed party.
It found that the category did exist, but that its target size of 2,274 was too small for Facebook to allow the site to run an ad. To boost ProPublica's audience size to 119,000, Facebook's advertising tool suggested adding "Second Amendment." ProPublica speculated that the recommendation may have been a result of the ad system linking gun supporters to anti-Semites.
ProPublica typed in "jew h" into Facebook's automated ad system and received recommendations for "How to burn Jews" and "History of why jews ruin the world." Next, it typed in "Hitler" and received "Hitler did nothing wrong." ProPublica also received recommendations for "German Schutzstaffel" (the Nazi SS), "the Nazi Party" and "National Democratic Party of Germany," a far-right German political group.
ProPublica paid $30 for three "promoted posts" linking to articles it owns. Facebook approved the ads in 15 minutes with one change: it changed the category "jew hater" to "Antysemityzm," the Polish word for anti-Semitism.
Facebook later sent ProPublica results of the ad campaign. The ads reached 5,897 people, received 101 clicks and had 13 "engagements," which could include likes, shares or comments.
In a separate investigation, BuzzFeed ran a similar inquiry into Google's advertising system, which BuzzFeed acknowledges is different than Facebook's ad system and "harder to police."
Still, BuzzFeed received 77 keyword suggestions from Google's ad program after typing in "why do jews ruin everything." Suggested phrases included "jews ruin the world" and "jewish parasites."
BuzzFeed also received 14 suggestions for "white people ruin," including several anti-black phrases such as "black people destroy everything" and "black people ruin neighborhoods."
Both Facebook and Google took down many of the search terms after ProPublica and BuzzFeed contacted the companies about their respective investigations.
"We have looked at the use of these audiences and campaigns and it’s not common or widespread," said Facebook spokesman Joe Osborne, according to ProPublica.
Following the publication of BuzzFeed's story on Sept. 15, Google Senior Vice President of Advertising Sridhar Ramaswamy provided the new site with the following statement:
"Our goal is to prevent our keyword suggestions tool from making offensive suggestions, and to stop any offensive ads appearing. We have language that informs advertisers when their ads are offensive and therefore rejected. In this instance, ads didn’t run against the vast majority of these keywords, but we didn't catch all these offensive suggestions. That's not good enough and we’re not making excuses. We've already turned off these suggestions, and any ads that made it through, and will work harder to stop this from happening again."