AP NEWS

Facebook denies Houston’s ads promoting fair housing over race, religion references

May 15, 2019

Russian bots may have an easier time getting through Facebook’s firewalls than fair housing ads — at least, if the city of Houston’s experience is any indication.

The city bought ads on the social media site through the Houston Chronicle’s promotions department for a campaign during Fair Housing Month in April highlighting the seven classes protected under the Fair Housing Act of 1968: race, color, religion, sex, handicap, familial status and national origin. The ads ran in the Chronicle’s real estate section and the newspaper then arranged the purchase of the Facebook ads.

Facebook allowed five of the seven ads but blocked ads regarding race and religion, flagging them as “related to politics on an issue of national importance.”

“It’s not political to promote fair housing,” said Sarah Labowitz, assistant director of the city’s Housing and Community Development Department. “There is no other side.”

Devon Kearns, a spokesperson for Facebook, pointed to Facebook’s policy of requiring third-party authorization to run political ads.

“We agree these ads should be allowed to run,” Kearns said. “We just ask that people go through these additional steps.”

But arranging for the Chronicle to be an authorized third-party buyer for the city on Facebook would not resolve the issue, Labowitz said.

“Facebook is applying its own policy inconsistently,” she said. “It doesn’t make sense to let through five of the seven protected classes and then block the last two.”

Kearns said allowing the other five through was an error on the part of Facebook’s ad review team, though she didn’t know why the city’s ads specifically got flagged or how many third-party buyers were authorized through the social media giant’s program.

She also said any “advocacy” around civil rights — either for or against — could count under Facebook’s policy, though she didn’t give specific examples of how else it could be applied to other federal laws.

Sasha Marshall, a senior planner at the city’s housing department, designed the campaign, called “We Are All Protected,” which featured real Houstonians as models.

She called Facebook’s block a “missed opportunity to educate people about their human rights.”

“We can’t talk about race, we can’t talk about religion in a healthy way that applies to a federal act because you’re afraid to have the conversation?” Marshall asked. “That’s not what we’re about as a nation.”

The city learned about the ad denial in late April. Labowitz and Marshall spoke to Facebook’s public policy team on April 24. Two days later, Facebook rejected the ads again. After the ads were nixed by Facebook, the Chronicle stepped aside to allow the city to make its case to Facebook, according to Labowitz.

She sent a letter to a Facebook vice president on May 8 — and sent a copy to the U.S. Department of Housing and Urban Development.

“We understand your intent in developing the political advertising policy was to shine a light on speech that seeks to influence elections, stoke division, or exploit weaknesses in our civic fabric, like racism,” she wrote. “But there is a risk that in your attempt to redress Facebook’s role in the public debate, the company is suppressing speech that promotes civic virtues, such as fighting racism in housing.”

Facebook hasn’t had an easy time since the 2016 presidential election, but fair housing specific complaints stretch back at least three years.

HUD sued Facebook for housing discrimination in March, alleging that the way it lets users restrict what types of people could view ads counted as housing discrimination. Kearns declined to comment on the suit, calling it an “entirely separate issue.”

A ProPublica investigation in 2016 showed that buyers could exclude people from viewing housing ads by race. The Fair Housing Act makes it illegal to limit housing sales and rentals based on race and the other six protected classes that the city of Houston wanted to showcase in its April campaign.

sarah.smith@chron.com