UK government accused of targeting minorities with social media

LONDON : UK government agencies have been found to be using hyper-targeted advertisements on social media to push specific messaging toward minority groups, despite Facebook banning such campaigns.

The Guardian reported that agencies, including police forces, use online data linked to protected characteristics that include race, religious beliefs and even sexual orientation to push messages about migration, jobs and crime.

One case showed a government campaign on Facebook offering council support services for those interested in “hijabs” and “Islamic dietary requirements.” Another had people interested in “hip hop” and “rapping” being targeted in an appeal for witnesses to a murder in Manchester.

In the summer of 2022, it was found that the UK Home Office targeted people coming from Afghanistan, Iraq and Syria with hundreds of ads aimed at discouraging asylum seekers from finding refuge in the UK. They did this by picking out specific interests such as “Syrian cuisine”, “football in Iraq” and “Afghanistan national cricket team.”

The campaign went as far as targeting people using religious labels such as “Eid Al-Fitr.”

More than 12,000 ads on Facebook and Instagram were analyzed by researchers across the UK between 2020 and 2023 to reveal the micro-targeting campaigns. This comes despite Facebook having banned targeted ads such as those based on race and religion due to concerns about discrimination and exclusion.

According to the researchers, the targeted ad campaigns were seen as “particularly troubling” to minority groups.

In some cases “people have really not cared about the ethics. They’re using these absolutely mad proxies which are based on very intimate aspects of behavior, interests and identity,” said Ben Collier, a digital methods lecturer at the University of Edinburgh and a co-author of an upcoming report on the targeting.

He added that some of the targeting was “strikingly old-fashioned” and used “ridiculous stereotypes” about some social and ethnic groups.

Another researcher, Sandra Wachter, of the Oxford Internet Institute, said that the use of targeting for policing and crime purposes was concerning, adding: “We (already) have massive systemic discrimination, with police arresting people of color at a much higher rate than white people.”

Private advocacy group Big Brother Watch called on the UK government to be “transparent about its use of these intrusive surveillance advertising techniques and halt any targeting of people based on ethnicity, religion or sexual orientation by proxy.”

For its part, Meta claims to have made significant progress in cracking down on abusive and targeting ad campaigns by “routinely reviewing, updating and removing targeting options.”

Meanwhile, the UK government said that these “campaigns are always designed to effectively reach key audiences and ensure value for money for the taxpayer. The advertising channels are selected based on their ability to engage with audiences at a national, regional and local level.”

Courtesy: arabnews