Smashing Facebook, or, Menlo Park and the Infinite Discrimination Sadness

By Jason Cochard for Land Academy

            I boosted a Facebook post last week. Huge mistake.

            Google changed the game by enabling “attractive” advertising, through their AdWords platform. Instead of broadcasting your message to all viewers such as in a television ad (expensive and high rate of irrelevancy), AdWords allows you to narrow-cast your message only to people who are already hoping to connect with someone like you, by virtue of their search terms. Brilliant! All other forms of advertising are “interruptive,” and this includes Facebook ads.

            But Facebook outbid Google on creepiness, gathering multiple hundreds of data points fueling insights about every possible aspect of its users, taking ad targeting to the moon. With Facebook audience selection tools, you can target ads so effectively that some people begin to feel like they are being listened to and stalked by the company whose ads seem to be following them around the internet and won’t leave them alone — and they’re relevant, too.

            So I boosted a post based on some criteria. I was trying to target males from 27-55 who are interested in hunting and the outdoors, because a piece of property I’m selling has good hunting and borders 40,000+ acres of public land where hunting is allowed. It’s the perfect base of operations to build a hunting cabin. Is there a hunting cabin on it right now? No, there are no improvements on the property.

            What is actually happening by using Facebook’s tools for getting your message to the people who match certain criteria — tools that fuel Facebook’s core revenue stream?  Despite the negative connotations, the most accurate word for it is discrimination. Targeting is another industry term, and “custom audiences” and “lookalike audiences” are what Facebook uses in most of its materials. But Facebook also does call it discrimination when it talks out of the other side of its mouth — that is, when Facebook is rejecting your ad.

            After initially approving and running my ad for a few days, Facebook turned off the ad and sent me a message telling me that I was selling housing, employment, or credit and therefore my ad was discriminatory. This is of course, false, but Facebook asserted it to be true, and Facebook determines what is true when you’re playing in Facebook’s court, and Facebook will take its ball and go home if you object to being gas-lighted. Thus, even though vacant land has no capacity to be construed as housing, my ad must comply with all relevant anti-discrimination laws that apply to housing.

            While this is based on a false premise, and my appeal assured the auditor that a) no house exists on the property therefore housing is not being offered, b) I do not finance purchasers so I am not offering credit, and c) this is not a ad for a job, alas, Facebook is opaque, and denied my appeal. With help from the analytics from my website, I traced the ad auditor to a location in Mumbai, India, a place where the laws of the United States are not fully understood. But I had expected it to be cleared up after a well-reasoned appeal.

           After the denial of my appeal, I can’t help but conclude that anyone using Facebook ad targeting is completely at the mercy of Facebook, in the same way as the catch-all contingencies in our offer letters are 100% in our favor. What do I mean? In the rejection notice Facebook sent me, I was referred to their policy on discrimination. What I read was a recursive trip to Absurdia, a suburb of the twilight zone. “Facebook prohibits advertisers from using our ads products to discriminate against people. This means that advertisers may not (1) use our audience selection tools to (a) wrongfully target groups of people for advertising, or (b) wrongfully exclude specific groups of people from seeing their ads…”

            Fact: Facebook’s principal revenue stream is ad revenue driven by their audience creation tools, the principal aim of which is to enable hair-splitting accurate discrimination of the audience of any message. By providing tools to discriminate, the use of which puts you in violation of their discrimination policy, it seems to me that Facebook is violating the estoppel principle of common law, which prevents a person from withdrawing a promise made to a second party if the second party has reasonably relied on that promise. But that’s academic. What’s really happening is that Facebook believes it is the only one who can discriminate. If every advertiser is in violation of the terms of service the moment the service is used, Facebook has a blank check to pick winners and losers. And because we aren’t large agencies with millions a year in ad spend, the decision maker reviewing your ad isn’t a chummy B2B concierge in Menlo Park with a phone number you can call; instead, it’s likely to be a non-employee contractor in India who doesn’t understand US laws or, apparently, that vacant land isn’t housing.

            Any business based on someone else’s technology is a business that is always one external decision away from bankruptcy. Those decisions are capricious and sudden. Case in point: an “influencer” friend who has had a monetized YouTube channel for the past decade (and living off its revenue) told me recently that a single monetization policy change at YouTube has basically sliced her income in half.

           Those kinds of dependencies must be minimized to preserve autonomy. As much as I’d like to use the Facebook ad creation tools I spent time learning, my use of Facebook will probably continue only in the form of shared posts and videos in groups with relevant interests. Doing bigger deals and using flat fee MLS preserves enough autonomy in my book, and the people reviewing the listings invariably will understand what vacant land is, and isn’t.