back to top
Tech

Google Allowed Advertisers To Target People Searching Racist Phrases

Google prompted BuzzFeed News to run ads targeted to keywords like "black people ruin neighborhoods," then allowed the campaign to go live.

Originally posted on
Updated on

Google, the world's biggest advertising platform, allows advertisers to specifically target ads to people typing racist and bigoted terms into its search bar, BuzzFeed News has discovered. Not only that, Google will suggest additional racist and bigoted terms once you type some into its ad-buying tool.

Type "White people ruin," as a potential advertising keyword into Google's ad platform, and Google will suggest you run ads next to searches including "black people ruin neighborhoods." Type "Why do Jews ruin everything," and Google will suggest you run ads next to searches including "the evil jew" and "jewish control of banks."

BuzzFeed News ran an ad campaign targeted to all these keywords and others this week. The ads went live and were visible when we searched for the keywords we'd selected. Google's ad buying platform tracked the ad views. The issue is not unique to Google. On Thursday, ProPublica reported a similar issue with Facebook's ad targeting system.

Following our inquiry, Google disabled every keyword in this ad campaign save one — an exact match for "blacks destroy everything," is still eligible. Google told BuzzFeed News that just because a phrase is eligible does not guarantee an ad campaign will run against it. A total of 17 ad impressions were served before the keywords were disabled.

"This violates our policies against derogatory speech and we have removed it," a Google spokesperson told BuzzFeed News after being sent a screenshot of live ad campaign targeted to the search terms "Zionists control the world."

Friday morning, following publication of this story, Google provided a second statement to BuzzFeed News from Senior Vice President of Advertising Sridhar Ramaswamy. "Our goal is to prevent our keyword suggestions tool from making offensive suggestions, and to stop any offensive ads appearing. We have language that informs advertisers when their ads are offensive and therefore rejected. In this instance, ads didn’t run against the vast majority of these keywords, but we didn't catch all these offensive suggestions. That's not good enough and we’re not making excuses. We've already turned off these suggestions, and any ads that made it through, and will work harder to stop this from happening again."

This revelation comes as Facebook is scrambling to adjust its advertising platform which allowed marketers to target "Jew haters." Facebook blamed the issue, first reported by ProPublica, on its software algorithms. The company said these targeting criteria emerged when people listed the terms under their education and employer fields of their profiles. Facebook Thursday night said it would temporarily stop offering advertisers the option to target by these self-reported targeting fields.

In our Google ad buy, BuzzFeed News used a news story as the destination URL that included relevant language that would be accepted by Google's advertising system.

There are major differences between Facebook's and Google's ad systems that make Google's system harder to police. On Facebook, you essentially pick targeting criteria from Facebook's catalogue of information about people — their gender, location, interests, and more. On Google, you target ads to terms you anticipate will be typed in the search box. So Google's universe of potential ad-targeting contains many more unknowns.

Google removed 1.7 billion ads that violated its ad policies in 2016, according to its bad ad report.

Still, BuzzFeed News' campaign was largely made up of keywords suggested by Google's ad buying platform, which seemed to go the extra mile to make sure all angles of certain racist or bigoted ad buys got covered.

Advertisement

Here's a quick breakdown of how the campaign was built. Typing an exact match for "why do jews ruin everything" into Google's ad-buying tool generated 77 additional keyword suggestions, from "jews ruin the world" to "jewish parasites." The keyword tool generates suggestions from the text on the destination website copy, and also pulls from search trends. Google is looking into the way the tool works, and making updates to it, the company told BuzzFeed News.

BuzzFeed News selected a few of these terms and targeted a campaign to them. Google's sole warning, at first, seemed to be that "zionist Jews run the world" wasn't searched all that often.

Advertisement

BuzzFeed News then tried other terms including "white people ruin." Google suggested 14 additional keywords here, too, among them: "black people destroy everything" and "black people ruin neighborhoods."

BuzzFeed News targeted these terms, too. Google disabled most of them after BuzzFeed News provided the company with details about the campaign, but an exact match for "black people destroy everything" is still eligible.

On Thursday, Slate found an additional number of hateful categories inside Facebook's ad platform. BuzzFeed News tried these categories as keywords inside Google too.

Advertisement

Google's ad buying platform would not allow three of them.

With those keywords removed, the campaign was deemed eligible by Google's ad buying tool, though it again had concerns about low search volume.

When Google disapproved some of the campaign's targeting, its system sent the following message: "We value diversity and respect for others, so we strive to avoid offending users with ads or promoted content that's inappropriate for our ad network. Please remove any content that promotes hatred, intolerance, harassment, intimidation, exploitation, violence, or self-harm."

Other perspectives on this story

Outside Your Bubble is a BuzzFeed News effort to bring you a diversity of thought and opinion from around the internet. If you don't see your viewpoint represented, contact the curator at bubble@buzzfeed.com. Click here for more on Outside Your Bubble.

Alex Kantrowitz is a senior technology reporter for BuzzFeed News and is based in San Francisco. He reports on social and communications.

Contact Alex Kantrowitz at alex.kantrowitz@buzzfeed.com.

Got a confidential tip? Submit it here.