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Citizen Browser

Facebook Pledges to Remove Discriminatory Credit and Loan Ads Discovered by The Markup

The Markup’s Citizen Browser project found four companies targeting ads for financial products to specific age groups—a violation of Facebook policy and, potentially, civil rights laws

Photo of the Facebook HQ sign in Menlo Park, California
Kim Kulish/Getty Images

Facebook says it will remove ads from several companies that violated its anti-discrimination policy after The Markup discovered companies targeting financial services to specific age groups on the platform. 

Facebook policy prohibits advertisers from discriminating by age when running ads for things like credit cards and loans. 

The Markup’s report was published on April 29. Facebook didn’t respond to multiple requests for comment but reached out to The Markup a day after publication to say that it has since taken action.

“We’re reviewing and removing ads from these businesses that ran in violation of this policy,” Tom Channick, a Facebook communications manager, said in an email sent on Friday afternoon to another Markup reporter, who hadn’t worked on the article. “Our enforcement is never perfect since machines and human reviewers make mistakes, but we’re always working to improve.”

Channick didn’t respond to follow-up questions on how many ads Facebook has since removed, and how the ads were able to run in the first place. 

The response also came a day after Sen. Mazie Hirono, a Democrat from Hawaii, called for Facebook to address The Markup’s findings. Hirono had questioned Facebook about how it handles discimination in advertising for housing, employment, and credit opportunities during a Senate Judiciary subcommittee hearing on April 27, citing a history of violations on the advertising giant’s platform. 

During the hearing, Facebook’s vice president for content policy, Monika Bickert, said that the company doesn’t allow financial services ads to use certain targeting criteria, such as age. 

“We have policies around when people can use certain targeting criteria,” Bickert said. “We don’t allow that for certain types of advertisements, such as financial services advertisements or housing advertisements.”

Yet, The Markup found several financial services ads, including for home equity loans and secured credit cards, that did just that, excluding people older than 40 or younger than 34 in some cases. 

“Earlier this week Facebook told me under oath it does not allow the use of characteristics like age when targeting ads for financial services. This report suggests that testimony was false,” Hirono said in posts on Facebook and Twitter. “I have some serious questions. And I expect accurate answers.”

Earlier this week Facebook told me under oath it does not allow the use of characteristics like age when targeting ads for financial services. This report suggests that testimony was false.

Sen. Mazie Hirono, referring to the Markup’s report

The ads in question came from data obtained through The Markup’s Citizen Browser project, through which a nationwide panel of Facebook users automatically share news feed data with The Markup. The data includes ads that appear in their feeds, as well as some information on how those ads are targeted, via the  “Why am I seeing this ad?” feature. From March 16 to April 26, 2021, the panel included more than 1,800 people in the U.S. 

The data unveiled four companies who ran 91 unique ads, with different targeting choices, like age and location. 

Two of the companies listed in the article, Chime and Aspiration, were cited in a 2019 lawsuit against Facebook for age-restricting financial ads and were still able to run ads targeted by age on Facebook. 

Chime declined to comment, and Aspiration didn’t respond to The Markup’s request for comment.

Hometap’s head of marketing, Rachel Keohan, said the company wasn’t aware its home equity loans were targeted at people between the ages of 34 and 64 and said the company was removing them after The Markup reached out. 

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Alex Woie, head of strategic communications at Varo, which ran ads for a secured credit card targeted at people aged 22–45, said in an emailed statement, “Our user acquisition team at Varo is in close contact with Facebook and discusses the nature of our ads and target audience to ensure we are fully compliant with all requirements.” 

In March 2019, Facebook agreed to a settlement with civil rights groups where it would stop allowing advertisers to target ads for housing, employment, and credit opportunities by age, race, national origin, or gender. 

Despite Facebook’s efforts, researchers have found more examples of discrimination in advertisements for job opportunities, including a Markup investigation in August 2020.  

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