Facebook will no longer allow advertisers to target political beliefs, religion, sexual orientation

Facebook announced today that it will no longer allow advertisers to target users based on potentially “sensitive” topics like health, sexual orientation, or religious and political beliefs. “Lung cancer awareness,” “LGBT culture” and “Jewish holidays” are just some of the interest categories that will no longer be targeted starting early next year.

“The decision to remove these Detailed Targeting options was not easy and we know this change may negatively impact some businesses and organizations,” the company wrote in a blog post, saying input from civil rights experts, policymakers and other stakeholders contributed to its decision. Advertising revenue is Facebook’s leading source of income, so any major change to ad policy can have significant ramifications.

Facebook can target users based on information provided in their profile, like their age, location or gender. But the platform never made it possible to target people based on the sexual orientation listed in their profile, a representative from the company told TechCrunch. Rather, the advertising that will be removed refers to ads that are served based on your profile’s interest categories.

Facebook assigns these interest categories to your profile based on your activity. Based on how you engage with Facebook content, you might be assigned categories that Facebook would call “sensitive,” like “American Jewish culture,” “LGBT rights” or “Barack Obama.” Starting January 19, advertisers will no longer be able to target their ads based on interests like these. Other interest groups like “rock climbing” and “knitting,” not being sensitive, will still be targetable — there are tens of thousands of these categories, sensitive or not.

Users can see their profile’s interest groups by navigating on desktop to Settings and Privacy > Settings > Ads > Ad Settings > Categories used to reach you > Interest Categories. If you don’t want to receive ads based on a certain interest, you can opt out.

This change in ad policy comes as Meta — the newly renamed parent company to the Facebook platform — faces increased scrutiny after a series of senate hearings related to documents leaked by whistleblower Frances Haugen. As more documents are leaked to the press, Meta has gone on the defensive, claiming that some journalists’ reporting has misrepresented its actions.

But Facebook’s ad policy has been a topic of concern for years. Leading up to the U.S. presidential election in 2020, Facebook placed limitations on the kinds of political ads that could be created. In 2018, Facebook conducted a similar removal of over 5,000 targeting options for ads after the U.S. Department of Housing and Urban Development (HUD) filed a complaint against Facebook that accused it of helping landlords and home sellers violate the Fair Housing Act. Before that, in 2016, Facebook disabled “ethnic affinity” targeting for housing, employment and credit-related ads after a ProPublica report suggested that these capabilities could be used for discriminatory advertising. When it comes to housing and employment, it’s illegal to target ads based on certain demographics. Another report from ProPublica spurred Facebook to remove ad targeting based on anti-Semitic interest categories.

“We want to better match people’s evolving expectations of how advertisers may reach them on our platform and address feedback from civil rights experts, policymakers and other stakeholders on the importance of preventing advertisers from abusing the targeting options we make available,” the company wrote in a blog post. “The decision to remove these Detailed Targeting options was not easy and we know this change may negatively impact some businesses and organizations.”

Though Facebook said it made these decisions based on concerns about how data could be abused by bad actors, there are instances in which this data could be used in a potentially positive way, which worried some stakeholders. For example, if someone was interested in “Diabetes awareness,” they could be connected with nonprofits working to treat the condition.

Still, Facebook offers businesses a number of tools to access a specific audience. If users are opted into ad tracking on an iPhone, for example, Facebook advertisers can use that information for ad targeting. Businesses can also leverage engagement custom audiences, lookalike audiences and other techniques for reaching users, as the company outlines in its blog post.