Last month, Facebook removed the option to target ads by sexual orientation on its ad platform but never publicly announced it. The move has left organizations offering services to the LGBT community unable to directly target their audiences.
At the same time, Facebook made an exception for dating apps to continue using the targeting options, which the company offers based on gender and “interested in” information users share in their profiles.
The Trevor Project, a national 24/7 phone, chat, and text line aimed at suicidal LGBT youth, says the shift has disrupted its work and that it’s in talks with Facebook about reinstating the option to target ads based on sexual preference. But the discussions have so far been “fruitless,” the Trevor Project’s chief growth officer Calvin Stowell told BuzzFeed News.
“It’s really important to have that targeting be available,” Stowell said. “We’re advertising our services — obviously they’re life saving.”
Facebook stopped allowing “interested in” targeting as part of a major overhaul of its ad platform, which the company initiated after facing scrutiny from users and Congress last year. Bad actors have mercilessly exploited the platform in recent years, including Kremlin-linked trolls who used its targeting options to reach millions of Americans in an effort to divide the country during the 2016 election. And dozens of companies have used Facebook’s ad targeting options “to exclude older workers from job ads,” a recent Propublica investigation found.
"Based on feedback from our community and outside experts, we're removing the ability for organizations to target people based on the 'interested in' information in their profiles," Facebook product management director Mary Ku told BuzzFeed News in an emailed statement.
Cutting off targeting by sexual orientation could prevent certain discrimination on Facebook — for example, it would block advertisers from building two ad campaigns offering different deals or opportunities to those interested in the same sex and those interested in the opposite sex.
Some organizations supporting the LGBT community aren’t opposed to Facebook's move. A spokesperson for the Gay & Lesbian Alliance Against Defamation (GLAAD) told BuzzFeed news that Facebook’s call to remove identity-based targeting while keeping interest-based targeting is “a fair compromise” that could prevent malicious uses of the ad platform. GLAAD, an advocacy organization, does not use the identity-based targeting, or have a need for it the way the Trevor Project does.
But Facebook’s reluctance to allow the Trevor Project to use the criteria, even as it’s made special accommodations for dating apps, has frustrated the nonprofit. It was using the targeting to promote a national mental health survey. “We have a very limited budget, and so now I have to throw money at the wind, hoping it’s going to reach the group I want to reach,” Stowell said.
Without the ‘Interested in’ targeting option, the Trevor Project can still run ads to those whose interests they believe indicate they belong to the LGBT community, but Stowell called such targeting an "incredibly dangerous game," and said he fears it could out people unintentionally.
A Facebook spokesperson told BuzzFeed News that dating apps were still allowed to target by sexual preference due to a legacy requirement that forced dating apps to include "interested in" targeting in their ad campaigns. The spokesperson said that dating apps are no longer compelled to tick off this criteria, but Facebook was giving them time to wind down its use. After being contacted by BuzzFeed News, the company said all dating apps will lose the ability to target by sexual orientation by the end of April.