Facebook moving to clamp down on offensive ads

Last Updated Sep 20, 2017 4:45 PM EDT

Under fire for its advertising practices, Facebook (FB) is taking action to strengthen its ad targeting policies and tools.

Sheryl Sandberg, chief operating officer with the social media giant, said in a blog post on Wednesday that the company is "clarifying its ad policies and tightening our enforcement processes" to ensure Facebook doesn't sell ads that violate the company's community standards.

"This includes anything that directly attacks people based on their race, ethnicity, national origin, religious affiliation, sexual orientation, sex, gender or gender identity, or disabilities or diseases," she wrote. "Such targeting has always been in violation of our policies, and we are taking more steps to enforce that now."

Facebook's ads are under mounting scrutiny after the company disclosed earlier this month that Russia bought $100,000 in advertising on its platform during the 2016 U.S. presidential election cycle, generating 3,000 ads connected with hundreds of fake accounts.

Facebook has roughly 2 billion users, giving it enormous influence and reach.  

The heat intensified after investigative news site ProPublica revealed last week that Facebook could target ads to unsavory groups such as self-described "Jew haters."

Noting in the post that she is Jewish, Sanderg expressed disappointment that Facebook's systems allowed anti-Semitic and other bigoted language to be used in targeting ads, saying she is "disgusted by these sentiments."

"The fact that hateful terms were even offered as options was totally inappropriate and a fail on our part," Sandberg said. "We removed them and when that was not totally effective, we disabled that targeting section in our ad systems."

Along with moving more aggressively to weed out offensive ads, Sandberg said Facebook is adding more human oversight to its automated ad sales system.

"From now on we will have more manual review of new ad-targeting options to help prevent offensive terms from appearing," she said.

Facebook will also reinstate its 5,000 most common ad-targeting terms, which Sandberg said have been verified as complying with the company's community standards.

In another step to block objectionable ads, Sandberg said Facebook is creating a program to encourage site users to report "potential abuses" directly to the internet company.

"We hope these changes will prevent abuses like this going forward," Sandberg said. "If we discover unintended consequences in the future, we will be unrelenting in identifying and fixing them as quickly as possible."

Other popular internet companies also face public pressure to change their ad systems. Google (GOOG), the largest ad platform in the world, has allowed advertisers to target racist and bigoted keywords, according to BuzzFeed News. Twitter appears to have a similar problem with its ad campaigns, The Daily Beast has reported.

Facebook's disclosure that it sold ads to Russia-linked groups has aroused the attention of Washington lawmakers. For Facebook and Twitter (TWTR) executives, that may mean having to appear before a Senate intelligence panel investigating allegations of Russian meddling in the 2016 presidential election.