"Blatantly unlawful": companies use Facebook targeting to ensure older workers don't see help-wanted ads

A Propublica investigation (ed: I am an annual donor to Propublica and urge you to support their work) found dozens of companies who placed help wanted ads on Facebook that used ad-targeting to exclude older workers, a practice that an employment law specialist called "blatantly unlawful."

Facebook was one of the companies that used the practice in its own ads; also on the wall of shame are "dozens of the nation's leading employers," such as Verizon, Amazon, Goldman Sachs and Target.

Defenders of the practice claim that it's no different from running ads in demographically specific periodicals, such as Teen Vogue. But there's at least one critical difference here: anyone can choose to buy Teen Vogue and see the ads, but to see ads targeted outside your age-group on Facebook you would have to falsify your data to Facebook, which the company maintains is a felony violation of the 1986 Computer Fraud and Abuse Act.

Facebook is being sued over the practice, on the theory that it is not a mere media outlet, but, rather, a sort of employment agent.

Propublica was only able to uncover the practice because its reporter, Julia Angwin (previously) has asked her readers to install a browser add-on that records and uploads the ads that they see on Facebook. Facebook itself maintains that these ads are a secret, which makes it very difficult to detect this kind of wrongdoing.

If you are unwise enough to be a Facebook user, you can download and install the plugin for your browser (Chrome, Firefox) and help gather more data.

Edelstein spends most of his days scouring sites like LinkedIn and Indeed and pitching hiring managers with personalized appeals. When he scrolled through his Facebook ads on a Wednesday in December, he saw a variety of ads reflecting his interest in social media marketing: ads for the marketing software HubSpot ("15 free infographic templates!") and TripIt, which he used to book a trip to visit his mother in Florida.

What he didn't see was a single ad for a job in his profession, including one identified by ProPublica that was being shown to younger users: a posting for a social media director job at HubSpot. The company asked that the ad be shown to people aged 27 to 40 who live or were recently living in the United States.

"Hypothetically, had I seen a job for a social media director at HubSpot, even if it involved relocation, I ABSOLUTELY would have applied for it," Edelstein said by email when told about the ad.

A HubSpot spokeswoman, Ellie Botelho, said that the job was posted on many sites, including LinkedIn, The Ladders and Built in Boston, and was open to anyone meeting the qualifications regardless of age or any other demographic characteristic.

Dozens of Companies Are Using Facebook to Exclude Older Workers From Job Ads [Julia Angwin, Noam Scheiber and Ariana Tobin/Propublica]