Facebook Enables Marketing to a Strictly White Only Audience

Segregated cinema entrance

I should be more precise: Facebook enables marketing to a strictly ‘white affinity’ only adience.

Doug Neil of Universal Pictures and Facebook’s Jim Underwood presented Big Box Office: Marketing Films in a Mobile World at SxSW a few weeks back. They promised the audience that they would get to hear about “the best approaches for mobile marketing: how a monster hit like Jurassic World benefited from mobile-friendly content delivered to a mass audience while genre films benefit from insights into audience segments ranging from multi-cultural to multi-generational.”

In the session Neil explained how the movie Straight Outta Compton was an unexpected breakout hit. According to Business Insider he credited segmenting the audience into three parts: the “general population” (meaning non-African-American and non-Hispanic), African-Americans and Hispanics:

Neil credited part of this to a specialized Facebook marketing effort led by Universal’s “multicultural team” in conjunction with its Facebook team. They created tailored trailers for different segments of the population.

Why? The “general population” (non-African American, non-Hispanic) wasn’t familiar with N.W.A., or with the musical catalog of Ice Cube and Dr. Dre, according to Neil. They connected to Ice Cube as an actor and Dr. Dre as the face of Beats, he said. The trailer marketed to them on Facebook had no mention of N.W.A., but sold the movie as a story of the rise of Ice Cube and Dr. Dre.

The trailer marketed to African Americans was completely different. Universal assumed this segment of the population had a baseline familiarity with N.W.A. “They put Compton on the map,” Neil said. This trailer opens with the word N.W.A. and continues to lean on it heavily throughout.

As to the trailer produced for the Hispanic market, it was a shorter spot that included flashing quotes in Spanish.

Let’s sidestep the fact that Hollywood still seems to think that “black” movies have a hard time being successful. And let’s ignore how tone-deaf these two gentlemen are when it comes to the current situation around race in Hollywood (think #OscarsSoWhite or the upsetting story of Nina Simone’s botched biopic). Instead, let’s look at what this really is:

Racial profiling enabled by Facebook’s data lust

Facebook was quick to explain that they are not identifying their audience as being black. Instead they are merely assessing your affinity with black culture, or as they would call it: whether you “like African-American content”. They promise they won’t make that assessment on the basis of your photos (although surely their research lab must be working on some form of “fracial recognition” system), your name or census data. Instead they’ll look at what you ‘like’ and read online. In simple Facebook-algorithmic terms: if you watch BET and post #BlackLivesMatter links, then we can tell our advertiser you probably know N.W.A. well and don’t need to see the whitewashed trailer.

Some people can’t see what is wrong with a bit of personalisation and are happy that this movie has managed to find a big audience. But they are missing the bigger picture.

Facebook has this type of affinity data on most of its close to 1.6 billion(!) monthly active users. We now have a commercial company building a massive world-scale database that enables anybody with access to that data to slice up the population in whatever way they might find convenient.

  • Looking for strictly white patronage for your Airbnb? Facebook can help you with that.
  • Only want millionaires on your dating site? Show some ads to Facebook users from the “rich affinity” group.
  • Desperate to sell your cancer medication? Facebook can get you a set of people who have ‘liked’ cancer.
  • Need a list of all the people with Kurdish affinity? Facebook is ready for you!
  • Jews? Muslims? Facebook can now personalise their experience too…

After initially enabling ‘Web 2.0’, Facebook is now enabling segregation 2.0. I mean, what could go wrong?

Everybody has a share

How the focus on security and the culture of fear has real negative effects and hurts our social integrity.

The term ‘doublethink’ comes from the book ‘1984’ of course. Big Brother’s ‘Ministry of Truth’ -specializing in fabricating lies- uses slogans like ‘War is peace’ and ‘Freedom is slavery’.

There is another classic book in which the state creates paradoxical rules to keep her citizens in check. It is one of my favourites: ‘Catch-22’ by Joseph Heller.


Yossarian is the protagonist, a Captain in the American Airforce during World War Two. When, during a mission, his buddy Snowden (yes, you can’t make it up) dies, something breaks inside of him. He decides he needs to escape. He tells the doctor that the war is making him insane and that he wants to go home. The doctor tells him that there is a rule that says that anybody who wants to go home because of the war can’t be insane. Yossarian has to stay because of rule 22, the infamous ‘Catch-22’.

One of the most interesting characters in the book is the profiteer Milo Minderbinder, responsible for the canteen at the army base.

Milo Minderbinder

Minderbinder runs a ‘syndicate’, M&M Enterprises, of which everybody (according to him) is a member. I can’t explain precisely how Milo buys fresh eggs for 1 cent in Sicily, sells them for 4-and-a-quarter cents in Malta, buys them back from there for 7 cents and sells them to the base for 5 cents, while still making a profit. Milo himself is clear about where the profit goes:

"Of course, I don’t make the profit, the syndicate makes the profit. And everybody has a share."

As soon as anybody questions his intentions, he literally hands them ‘a share’. Minderbinder sells anything and everything that he can find on the base. For example, when their plane has to make an emergency landing on the water, the crew finds out that he has removed the CO2-cannisters from the life jackets to make icecream to sell in the canteen. He has replaced them with a note with the following text:

"What’s good for M & M Enterprises is good for the country."

The Minderbinder character is Heller’s razor-sharp critique of the military-industrial complex. "What was good for the country was good for General Motors, and vice versa" said the former CEO of General Motors in 1953 when he became the American Minister of Defense.

Nowadays companies still use this type of of ‘doublespeak’.


Commercial interests are then equated to public interests. We now call outsourcing public tasks and risks to the business world (in exchange for a profit of course) ‘public-private partnerships’.

Proponents of this concept are often allowed to appear in the public eye as an ‘independent’ technical expert, to give their opinion on safety and the Internet. For me that feels a bit like you are asking a locksmith whether she thinks that the number of break-ins will increase, or that you create space for the thoughts of the CEO of Durex on the population explosion on the African continent.

Record holder in this rhetoric of (internet)safety as a market is ‘The Hague Security Delta’. A group of private companies, governmental organizations and knowledge institutes with a shared goal. I cite: "more business activity, more jobs and a secure world". Let’s take a look at the way in which The Hague Security Delta recruits students for their campus…

It is important of course to be a frontrunner in the cybersecurity domain. However, this bombastic piece of ‘safety-porn’ has a very damaging side to it. It scares us.

At Bits of Freedom we often talk about the ‘chilling effect’: not daring to do certain things anymore because you think you might be listened in on or looked at. The current focus on more and more security has another negative effect. The effect of the false positive: we see dangers that don’t exist.

You’ve probably read about Ahmed Mohamed, the 14 year old from Texas who was put in handcuffs and was arrested after he had shown his self-made clock to his teacher at school.

Ahmed Mohamed

Or about the 30 hipsters who had to answer to two police officers after a passer-by had gotten a bit nervous after seeing their black flag.

Beard club

It isn’t only Muslims and men with beards who are the victim of our urge to profile.

'Bomb' shoe

This shoe is owned by Peter Schaap. The laser helps him to walk with his Parkinson’s. Last month, he was sitting in the bus waiting for it to leave. The bus driver refused to get in. Before Peter knew what was happening he was taken off the bus by two police officers. They had been called by one of his fellow passengers who, rather than asking him why he needs those special shoes, had just dialed the emergency number.

Although we can probably also laugh about this, it is very sad story too. Apparently, deviant behavior is immediately seen as suspect. It is symptomatic for what I’ll call a ‘Culture of Fear’. And these are only the examples that make the news. How often does this happen to people without us getting to know about it?

Rob Bertholee

That is why I was so disappointed when the boss of the Dutch secret service, Rob Bertholee, told a room full of readers of ‘De Correspondent’ that he wants to flip around the standard question about the so-called balance between privacy and security. "How much security do you want to give up for privacy?", he asked. This shows that he doesn’t see how fear has a deleterious effect on how we relate to each other. The question that has to be asked instead —by him too— is: How much societal integrity do we want to give up for a one-sided and anxious focus on security?

The earlier examples of false positives show a human failing. But more and more future decisions about us will be taken by computer algorithms using profiling data. On the basis of the collected data about us (where do we live, what is our ‘sentiment’ on social media, what have we bought recently) we are pigeonholed by the system.

Last summer, Google’s image recognition algorithm categorized Jacky Alciné’s black friend as a gorilla…

My friend is not a gorilla

Not only does this say something about the lack of diversity of the Google team, it also shows the current limitations of technology. The exact same machine learning techniques —including its preprogrammed biases— will make a guess whether you should be allowed to order at a web shop, whether you are eligible for a deduction on your insurance premium, if you aren’t being fraudulent with the mileage of your company car, and whether you are intending to travel to Syria of course. If you start looking for that one dangerous exception in massive amounts of data, you will by definition mostly find false positives. These wrongly profiled people are therefore the victim of our craving for more (false) security and for bigger data.

We have to keep resisting the fact that we are constantly being reduced to our profiles. We can really say that in the case of the digital civil rights movement everybody does have a share. So let us keep fighting together for an internet on which human rights are truly meaningful and for a society in which we can truly be free.

This is a slightly shortened version of a speech I gave at the 2016 edition of the Dutch Big Brother Awards. Sources and image credits.