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Facebook’s Woes Affect Us All, Especially the LGBTQ Community

Updated: Oct 13, 2020

In light of Facebook’s recent string of bad press around the Cambridge Analytica debacle, it is clear that protecting your data privacy needs to be an overarching concern for all users of the social network – and of the Internet at large. As Facebook grapples with being in the negative limelight around the world, data privacy concerns and targeted advertising and marketing have become household conversations in a way that was unthinkable even a few months ago.

Internet-based companies are beginning to react, fearful of similar public relations fallouts. For example, Google has issued new guidelines to all website owners using the platform’s advertising tool to ensure compliance with all data privacy laws internationally. And even Facebook itself has taken some immediate action to curb the targeted advertisements at the heart of their recent debacles.

Except there is a major problem with the action Facebook has taken.

The social network eliminated the option to target ads based on a user’s “Interested in” details. For the LGBTQ community, that can lead to major challenges.

Removing Life-Saving Targeted Ads

By removing the ability to target ads based on a user’s selected preferences, LGBTQ organizations have lost the ability to reach their own community with life-saving information and resources.

Take, for example, The Trevor Project, which is a national network whose goal is to help suicidal LGBTQ youth. According to their chief growth officer, Calvin Stowell, Facebook’s new policy has made their work more challenging in trying to reach at-risk LBGTQ youth with vital resources at critical times.

While targeted advertisements are the current buzzword around Facebook’s global woes, eliminating the ability to target users by sexual orientation makes reaching those in need much more difficult.

Without the ‘Interested in’ targeting option, Stowell told BuzzFeed News in a recent report, The Trevor Project can only run ads to those whose other interests indicate they might possibly belong to the LGBT community. But Stowell called using that method an "incredibly dangerous game," saying that he fears it could accidentally out people.

Pros of Removing These Targeted Ads

To be sure, eliminating the option to target users by sexual orientation could prevent discriminatory practices, such as aiming ads at LGBTQ-identifying individuals with higher costs or offering different deals.

The Gay & Lesbian Alliance Against Defamation (GLAAD) told BuzzFeed news that Facebook’s removal of identity-based targeting while keeping interest-based targeting is “a fair compromise” that could prevent malicious uses of the ad platform. Unlike The Trevor Project’s aim of reaching out to the LGBTQ community directly, GLAAD is an advocacy organization that does not need identity-based targeted advertising.

Lobbying Facebook for Change

The LGBT Technology Partnership & Institute has long worked with Facebook to ensure their policies reflect best practices for the LGBTQ community. From advising Facebook on the best way to ensure the protection of data for the LGBTQ community, to weighing in on the unintended consequences of Facebook’s real name policy on LGBTQ individuals and the creation of anonymous pages to attack members of the LGBTQ community, LGBT Tech has always been at the forefront, creating dialogue to support and protect our community users on Facebook.

That’s why, this week, LGBT Tech will be working with Facebook directly to discuss their recent issues in relation to overall data privacy, as well as their very specific decision to remove targeted ads based on a user’s identity preferences.

As of the end of April, Facebook announced that even dating apps will be unable to target ads based on a Facebook user’s self-identified preferences. This leads to the question: To what end has Facebook reacted to its embarrassing global data privacy problem by targeting the LGBTQ community?

According to BuzzFeed News, who reported on this unannounced change in policy at Facebook, Facebook product management director Mary Ku said in an emailed statement, "Based on feedback from our community and outside experts, we're removing the ability for organizations to target people based on the 'interested in' information in their profiles."

What outside experts advised this move? Facebook users have a right to know who was consulted regarding this specific retraction in policy. Why highlight the LGBTQ community specifically, while allowing other targeted advertising options to remain in place until a larger data privacy fix can be accomplished?

Based on Facebook CEO Mark Zuckerberg's Congressional testimony this week, Facebook will be reevaluating its stance on targeted ads altogether, so why suddenly revoke this one particular option while allowing all others to remain? This is a question all Facebook users should ask, but it specifically affects the LGBTQ community disproportionately.

Facebook’s Other Woes

While the removal of identity-based targeted advertising is of concern to LGBT individuals, another major concern involves the recent news indicating that Facebook might start sharing information with medical centers.

According to CNBC, as recently as last month, Facebook was talking to several health organizations, including Stanford Medical School and American College of Cardiology, about signing a data-sharing agreement.

While CNBC reported that any shared data would obscure personally identifiable information, such as a patient's name, the information would be combed by an AI technique that can match people listed in both sets of data. Facebook has said that the data would be used within the medical community for research purposes, but this news has raised major concerns about the amount and type of data collected by Facebook - and how it could potentially be used at any point in the future.

We already know that up to 87 million Facebook users’ data has been used by Cambridge Analytica, a company that worked with both the Trump campaign and the Brexit campaign in 2016. With that breach of trust over the protection of personal data, Facebook is under fire, and being under the global, public microscope might make the company react too harshly or even erratically. It is vital that stakeholders ensure a proper reaction to avoid the disproportionate impact on marginalized groups, especially the LGBTQ community.

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