Digital Studies faculty member Professor Christian Sandvig was recently interviewed by The Economist for their recent story about Facebook and changes they are making to try to make their advertising algorithms less descrimintary.  

Go to The Economist to read the entire article "Facebook's ad system seems to discriminate by race and gender."


The research offers compelling evidence that Facebook is using “machine vision”, whereby powerful computers scan images and recognise what they depict. This is something that has long been assumed but never proven. The researchers established the use of machine vision by changing the transparency of the images they used in their ads, so that they were visible to machines but not to humans. Otherwise identical ads with different pictures of black and white families were still routed to different groups of people.

Advertising relies to a large extent on trying to reach particular groups of people. Sellers of luxury watches want to sell to rich people, for instance, who are more likely to be white than black. But the ability of algorithms to reach the intended audience by sifting vast amounts of personal data is causing growing dismay. This is especially true of Facebook because of its scale relative to traditional media. Moreover, its advertising systems are too complex to be understood at a glance. This makes it harder to draw a clear line between ads that are clearly discriminatory and those than are merely discomfiting.

Christian Sandvig, Director of the Centre for Ethics, Society and Computing at the University of Michigan, said the research showed that Facebook is making “drastic, important, and potentially illegal editorial decisions all the time by using algorithmic systems to identify audiences”. Mr Sandvig was not involved in the work.