Facebook will investigate allegations that its algorithms are discriminatory

Facebook is launching an investigation into whether its algorithms discriminate against minority ethnic groups, after internal protests forced the company to reassess the possibility that its machine learning systems could have picked up on real-world bias.

The company’s new “equity and inclusion” teams will be tasked with assessing the algorithms that govern Instagram and Facebook and making sure they are not biased against black, Hispanic and other minority ethnic groups. Facebook said the focus would be on “ensuring fairness and equitable product development are present in everything we do”.

Vishal Shah, the vice-president of product for Instagram, said in a statement: “The racial justice movement is a moment of real significance for our company. Any bias in our systems and policies runs counter to providing a platform for everyone to express themselves. While we’re always working to create a more equitable experience, we are setting up additional efforts to continue this progress, from establishing the Instagram equity team to Facebook’s inclusive product council.”

Algorithmic discrimination has long been a concern of civil liberties watchdogs. For instance, an advertising system that learns who to show adverts to could inadvertently recreate racial biases if it comes to associate a particular race with low incomes.

In 2016, the activist and entrepreneur Maciej Cegłowski said: “Machine learning is like money laundering for bias. It’s a clean, mathematical apparatus that gives the status quo the aura of logical inevitability. The numbers don’t lie.”

The goal of Facebook’s new teams is to actively seek out such biased approaches and work to ensure the end product treats users of all races fairly.

“As we have done for some time, we will continue to work closely with Facebook’s Responsible AI team to ensure we are looking at potential biases across our respective platforms. It’s early, and we plan to share more details on this work in the coming months,” the company said of the initiative.

According to the Wall Street Journal, which first reported the existence of the equity teams, the company had previously banned such research from taking place without the permission of its senior leadership.

The paper reported that an internal analysis had found that black users were 50% more likely than other users to have their Instagram accounts disabled, but further research was prohibited by Instagram management.