Black Facebook users saw different ‘Straight Outta Compton’ trailers than white users

In News by Drew Salisbury / March 18, 2016

Internet marketing and social media companies collect an ungodly amount of information on their users to tailor advertisements. Once on Twitter I joked about doing neck exercises to strengthen my weak chin [Note: I was not joking] and ever since I’ve gotten promoted ads for surgeries to get rid of extra arm flab.

On a semi-related note, promotion for the NWA biopic “Straight Outta Compton” was highly visible across a variety of mediums last year, no doubt a big part of making the movie a hit across multiple demographics and becoming one of the top 20 grossing films of the year. On Facebook, that promotion took the form of targeted trailers based on the presumed race of the user.

During a South by Southwest panel Wednesday, the filmmakers revealed that Universal and Facebook partnered to deliver two different trailers on the social media platform: one for black people and one for white people. One version of the trailer assumed that the audience was familiar with NWA, its members, and their relative stories. The other version was made for an audience that would likely only be aware of Ice Cube and Dr. Dre — the former of course being the star of those comedies that take place in barber shops and minivans, and the latter being the dude who makes headphones and cameos in Eminem videos.

I’ll leave it to you to deduce which was which.

The thing is, Facebook doesn’t actually collect information on the race of their users across the board, you have to volunteer it. So, the marketers had to use contextual metadata to deduce it.

Anyone who has followed the NSA privacy scandals over the last couple of years knows about metadata. Since nobody has followed the NSA privacy scandals over the last couple of years, let me explain. For the purposes of this conversation, metadata is basically information about other data. It can be used to infer information when that information doesn’t exist or you don’t have access to it. The classic example is a phone call. The transcript of the conversation is the data. The metadata is the length of the phone call, who made it, who received it, where each party was, what time of day it occurred, etc. With this information, you can actually figure out a surprisingly lot about what was discussed.

For Facebook, they call targeted groups identified by metadata “affinity groups.” As per Business Insider:

To construct an “African-American affinity segment,” Facebook would look at indicators like whether someone was a member of an African American Chamber of Commerce Facebook group. When many of these indicators are taken into account simultaneously, it allows Facebook to define the “affinity” segment.

So basically, it’s safe to assume that liking a lot of hip hop and R&B, books by black authors, and groups like the NAACP or Black Lives Matter, might get you included into this group. That’s a lot of stereotyping, to be sure, but note that, for the purposes of the marketing (from Facebook and Universal’s perspective), it doesn’t really matter if the user is blackjust that they’re aware of who NWA is. Hence, the “affinity” title.

That might seem fucked up, but its unlikely that marketers will change their methods any time soon, seeing as how this one helped bring in $160 million at the box office.

[Consequence of Sound]