Commentary

Oy! Facebook's Jewdar Returns

Why is it that the most egregious ethnic profiling I'm subjected to is on Facebook?

Consider the reelection campaign from New York City Mayor Michael Bloomberg. I receive brochures from him in the mail at least weekly, all targeting me as someone likely to be of a certain demographic or interested in a particular issue. Bloomberg's TV ads run constantly, all undoubtedly targeted to TV network, perhaps the content of certain programs, and the geographic area. But only on Facebook have I seen an ad for Mayor Mike with the candidate's first name spelled out in Hebrew. The evidence is pouring in: Facebook's Jewdar is back.

I first covered Facebook's Jewhavioral targeting a year ago. The advertiser that targeted me with an ad entitled "Hey Jew" turned out to have overzealously addressed his creative to everyone in large U.S. metropolitan areas. I hadn't seen signs of religious targeting since then.

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I still don't list my religion on my Facebook profile, just as I refrain from listing my political affiliation. Yet something new happened last week: Facebook debuted ad targeting options for people who are connected to an advertiser's Page, event, group, or application. Right as this happened, Jewdar activity picked up. Did I miss some story about religious targeting as well, or was it all coincidental?

I reviewed my profile and discovered I still had some Jewish markers displayed -- my "favorites" include such decidedly Jewish masterworks as "Annie Hall," "Everything is Illuminated," and "The Daily Show." The groups I joined over the past year have been more secular. Just because Jeff Pulver seems to spend half his time in Israel, would I really be pegged a Jew just for joining his group "Friends of #140conf"? And what about the Pages? I became a fan of Zagat Survey, which you would hardly use if keeping strictly kosher unless you wanted to check out restaurant descriptions like "the waiter tells YOU what you're having" and "saltier than the Dead Sea." I also proudly became a fan of the non-kosher (and Southern Baptist) Chick-Fil-A, the one reason I never mind having more than an hour to kill in Atlanta's Hartsfield-Jackson airport, even if I'm spending the entirety of the subsequent flight wondering why I needed two fried chicken sandwiches.

The Jewish ads that tracked me down weren't just from Mayor Mike. Another ad beckoned, "Artistic Judaic Promotions: Contemporary Judaica for home, gifts and institutions." Then there was the one for "The New Jew" that urged me to "read this poignant and humorous story about how a Catholic girl from the Midwest became a New York Jew - a most unexpected journey!" And yet my journey had no end in sight.

Other forms of targeting on Facebook make more sense. I see a high percentage of ads targeting my association with my alma mater, which I have always displayed on Facebook, and it's easy to target ads by university and major. Other ads clearly target my geography and professional interests. But religious targeting on Facebook remains a "nisht nisht," as Sacha Baron Cohen's character Bruno would say. What's all the more puzzling is that I don't see ads even hinting of associating me with any other religion or ethnic group. How come there are no ads inviting me to add some awesome new Ramadan application? Why wouldn't I want to transcend time and space with other Buddhists?

I tested sample ads with the new targeting options in place. Facebook limits targeting to Pages, events, groups, and applications that you run. A group lobbying to repeal "Don't Ask, Don't Tell," for instance, couldn't target everyone who's a fan of Barack Obama. Similarly, Argentinean women couldn't target their matchmaking services to people who signed up for a Facebook event hosted by South Carolina Governor Mark Sanford. Even if I was a fan of a Jewish-themed Page or a member of a Jewish group, Facebook's controls only allow the originator or moderator to run ads targeting me. And for the record, I'm not currently a fan of "The New Jew."

This brings me back to Mayor Mike. Along with the ad in Hebrew, other ads proclaimed support for him from Brooklyn and Staten Island, two boroughs in which I've never lived. It certainly feels like the campaign will try anything to reach me, and when it's wrong -- which it is, most of the time -- it leaves a bad impression. I'm still left to wonder, though, why I see his ads with Hebrew lettering and not Chinese.

5 comments about "Oy! Facebook's Jewdar Returns".
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  1. John Jainschigg from World2Worlds, Inc., July 21, 2009 at 2:32 p.m.

    Oy is right. (sigh)

    This automated inference seems amusing until, one day, it's not. One day, last year, I happened to use the phrase 'anarcho-syndicalist' in a blog (I think I was quoting Monty Python), and watched as my gmail was suddenly overrun with ads for Che Guevara t-shirts and red-diaper-baby memoirs.

    So we're already a couple lines deep into the famous poem: "First, they came for the communists ... " Not a pretty picture, if you're of morbid character.

  2. Mike Myers from Harris Teeter, July 21, 2009 at 2:51 p.m.

    Just wondering aloud, could the targeting be based on the new url's that contain names? Perhaps they have a list of names they consider Jewish and are targeting based on profile names???

  3. Roy Moskowitz from Reciprocal Results, July 21, 2009 at 2:51 p.m.

    They're definitely targeting based on traditionally Jewish last names.

    I'm probably the only person not named David Berkowitz to have been teased about your name (I'm sure you must be sick of the Son of Sam references). During Son of Sam's reign of terror I was teased in two ways.

    One of victims, Stacy Moskowitz, shared my last name. Some how people thought that was funny. BTW, a few years later I attended Syracuse with a Stacy Moskowitz. I didn't know her personally, but I believe she wound up at JWT.

    Then there were the idiots who said, Moskowitz, Berkowitz, same difference.

  4. Cathy Taylor from ACHE, July 21, 2009 at 3:29 p.m.

    Your experience with targeted ads on Facebook is rather funny. I'm still wondering why FB is serving up single, white males (older males too) to me when I'm a single black female (not that old). I joked the other day that perhaps FB is suggesting that I try "Something New" until a friend who works as an interactive art director reminded me that Caucasian clip art is cheaper.

  5. Edward Barrera from Adotas, July 21, 2009 at 5:59 p.m.

    So then where are my taco, plaintain and rum ads? I'm getting discriminating by Facebook because I'm a Latino. Scandal.

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