Communication Legal

All is Fair in Love and on Social Media

Fairness. Simply defined, it’s the impartial and just treatment or behavior without favoritism or discrimination. While we have all heard the adage, “Life is not fair,” and we know from life’s experiences that this is indeed true, concerted effort goes into making sure that fairness is experienced in as many areas of life as possible. When we recognize that things are not as equitable as they should be for all parties, we act to ensure that this ideal is realized.  One such action is to make sure that all parties are abiding by the same set of rules.

Imagine for a moment that you are part of a basketball team and you are playing for a national championship. You would assume that the fundamental rules of the game would be adhered to and that the referees assigned to officiate the game would be impartial and just to both teams.  However, it becomes immediately apparent that the other team is benefitting from a different set of rules, one where traveling is no big deal and a hip check by a defender is met with a shrug from the referee. While you were following the rules, someone else changed the game without your knowledge, which gave your opponent an unfair advantage.

This is exactly what happened to individuals who were simply looking for homes to rent or buy on Facebook in October of 2016. Facebook’s ad targeting tools allowed advertisers of housing and housing-related services to discriminate by effectively removing potential ads from virtually anyone that they wanted to exclude. These advertisers could show ads to only men or only women. They could eliminate certain zip codes and include others which led to targeting of certain groups based upon social-economic factors such as income, ethnicity and religion.

Have you ever noticed that after looking up a particular topic on the internet, all of a sudden, your Facebook newsfeed is littered with ads related to that particular search. That is not a coincidence. One of the “super powers” of Facebook in that it can data mine every keystroke, search and article that you have ever looked at, giving advertisers the ability to sort individuals by a myriad of interests and searches.

If you were a dual income, no kid family looking for a rental in Arlington, you would not see the same housing options if you were a single parent, low to moderate income family with three children looking for a rental in Arlington – even if both families searched “available rentals in Arlington VA.” Whomever the advertiser wanted to include or exclude, they could and they did.  This gave families with higher incomes a disproportionate advantage over families with lower incomes. The lower income families never saw the advertisements for potential properties and because of the disparity they lost their opportunity to access to these properties.

After the first discovery of these egregious behaviors, Facebook agreed to put new procedures and measures in place to update its terms of service for advertisers and build tools that would allow it to disable its “ethnic affinity option” for ads offering housing. In February of 2017, Facebook rolled out these fixes only to be discovered yet again in November 2017, when reporters were able to purchase ads still eliminating most people from their searches. This is when the National Fair Housing Alliance came onto the scene filing a lawsuit in March 2018 against Facebook. Shortly thereafter, HUD filed a complaint in July 2018.

Obviously, the social media universe does not begin and end with Facebook. There are numerous social media outlets available to advertisers to market communities. With so much access at our fingertips, we as home builders, developers, managers and other business professionals in the community association industry must ensure that we are not being discriminatory in our approaches to our advertising as we look to market our own properties on whatever social media platforms we choose.

The very first thing that we need to do is to train everyone in fair housing practices, ideas, concepts and the actual law. The law says you can’t “make, print, or publish. . . any notice, statement, or advertisement . . . that indicates any preference, limitation, or discrimination based on a person’s race, color, religion, sex, handicap, familial status, or national origin.” That includes such things as applications, flyers, brochures, deeds, signs, banners, posters, billboards, and even pictures in your office. It also means that the things you say about your property in writing, over the phone or in person are covered. Expressing an illegal preference or limitation to one of your fellow agents, brokers, employees, prospective sellers, renters, or to any other person in connection with the sale or rental of your property is illegal. Before being given access to your social media accounts, each person should complete fair housing training and acknowledge your company’s policies and procedures – and make sure that everyone who has access to your social media accounts goes through the training!

Next, we should always show diversity in images. Consider all federal, state, and locally protected classes. For example, show men and women, diverse ethnicities, people with disabilities, a variety of ages, and families with and without children, and don’t forget to include pets, if allowed in your communities. If you are using drawings of people, show diversity in these, too! The objective is inclusivity in your advertising and marketing.

Thirdly, you want to use wording that positions your community as a place that everyone can call home! Social media messages must not position your community as more or less suitable for someone based on membership in a protected class. Just like what was mentioned above, avoid racial or ethnic terms, references to religion, exclusions based on disability, and limitations based on familial status. Just describe what a great place your community is in which to live.

Lastly, appoint someone to monitor your social media sites and the posts that are created there. You want to be careful to avoid any posts in which prospective or current residents indicate they feel they’ve been treated unfairly, feel unwelcome in the community, or would feel be discouraged from living there.

Social media is a great way to get the word out on all of our wonderful communities.  Let’s just make sure everyone gets to hear the same story, the right way!


By Jim Wisniewski 

Jim Wisniewski is the Director of Sales for Northstar Technologies based in Alpharetta, Georgia. Jim has also served as a General Manager of several properties as well as HOA President of several communities across the U.S.

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