Ads Aimed at Racists Prompt Facebook to Make Changes

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Sheryl Sandberg, Facebook’s chief operating officer, said the company had never anticipated that its ad-targeting technology could be used to court users who described themselves as “Jew haters” or used other hate speech.

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Laurent Gillieron/Keystone, via Associated Press

Responding to reports that its tools had allowed ads to be directed at people who expressed an interest in racist terms or hate speech, Facebook said Wednesday it would change how ads can be targeted to its users.

That its ad-targeting tools could be used in such a way was “a fail” for the company, Sheryl Sandberg, Facebook’s chief operating officer, said in a post. She added that Facebook would add “more human review and oversight” to its automated systems to prevent further misuse.

Ms. Sandberg also said the company would do more to ensure that offensive content, including content that attacks people for their race and religion, could not be used to target ads.

The announcement came after a report from ProPublica last week revealed that Facebook’s online ad tools had allowed advertisers to target self-described “Jew haters” or people who had used terms like “how to burn Jews.” The terms automatically appeared in Facebook’s ad system because people had apparently filled them in under “education” and “employer” on their profiles.

“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,” Ms. 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.”

Facebook has grown into one of the world’s most valuable companies by offering advertisers the ability to quickly and easily target its users based on a vast array of information, from the type of home they live in to their favorite television shows. But the company is facing a new wave of scrutiny over how those tools can be misused, particularly after it disclosed this month that fake accounts based in Russia had purchased more than $100,000 worth of ads on divisive issues in the run-up to the presidential election.

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