Skip to main content

On Facebook, racial profiling and the mob

By March 3, 20103 Comments

If you’re on Facebook (and who isn’t) you’ve probably noticed the “Suggestions” section on the right side of your feed. Basically, the wizards behind the curtain have developed a way to recommend fan pages based on similar characteristics.

A few examples will make how it works pretty obvious:

Facebook suggestion: World Wildlife Fund - The Nature Conservancy

Facebook suggestions: TED - GOOD

Facebook suggestions: White House - Barack Obama

Looks pretty good, eh? Well, here’s a headscratcher:

Facebook suggestions: Chase Community Giving - Mafia Wars

Which dots are being connected to suggest someone that’s a fan of Chase Community Giving might possibly have an interest in Mafia Wars? Is JP Morgan Chase a backer of Zynga or just connected to the mob?

Seriously though, I’ve opted out of nearly every Mafia Wars ad and provided negative feedback to Facebook countless times. Now I’m getting this?

But this one’s even worse:

Facebook suggestions: Michael Jackson - Barack Obama

Okay, where’s the Michael Jackson / Barack Obama connection? The only obvious connection is the color of their skin—which sounds a bit like racial profiling to me. I mean, really, does Facebook recommend Elvis to George H.W. Bush fans because they’re white?

While Facebook’s suggestions function makes sense when it’s done right, done wrong it can be downright offensive.

That’s my take. What’s yours?

Subscribe to this feed.

Join the discussion 3 Comments

  • There’s a much simpler explanation. Facebook happens to be sitting on one of the worlds largest datasets of it’s kind. Data on Obamas 8 million fans says, “An Obama fan is more likely than non-fans to also be a fan of Michael Jackson, or at least become a fan when presented the option” That’s not racial profiling, racial profiling is “People who ARE [whatever race] will like [thing or person]” Collaborative filtering is “People who LIKE [thing or person] will also like [thing or person]” Facebook’s algorithm isn’t operating off of racial stereotypes, but from the statistically significant decisions and likes gleaned from half a billion users. Wikipedia’s page on Recommender systems goes into further detail. Ok, maybe not a simpler explanation, but a much more likely one.


  • Good stuff, Jeremy. Thanks for sharing.

  • Rob Wolf says:

    While I agree that seeing some of those juxtapositions of “you are a fan of X, become a fan of Y” can be a little jarring, they’re usually done by the advertiser, not Facebook.

    A real world example:
    I’m running a campaign right now in which I was able to very specifically choose my targeting criteria. My product is a DVD and CD series made for Jewish babies. While I can’t target Jewish moms explicitly, I can get an awfully close proxy by doing the following: Targeting married women age 30-44 with college degrees who FRIENDS of the current fans of my product. I could have also targeted fans (or the friends of fans) of similar products. (Ethnic marketing tip: all Jews know each other. We were social networking since long before there was a name for it!)

    So, back to Michael Jackson. Maybe the geniuses running his fan page decided that some combination of demographics plus being a fan of Barack Obama made you a likely fan of MJ.

    I don’t think there’s anything nefarious going on. Just a new form of targeting that can yield some occasionally head-scratching results.

Leave a Reply