This story was co-published with The New York Times.
A few weeks ago, Verizon placed an ad on Facebook to recruit applicants for a unit focused on financial planning and analysis. The ad showed a smiling, millennial-aged woman seated at a computer and promised that new hires could look forward to a rewarding career in which they would be "more than just a number."
Some relevant numbers were not immediately evident. The promotion was set to run on the Facebook feeds of users 25 to 36 years old who lived in the nation's capital, or had recently visited there, and had demonstrated an interest in finance. For a vast majority of the hundreds of millions of people who check Facebook every day, the ad did not exist.
Verizon is among dozens of the nation's leading employers — including Amazon, Goldman Sachs, Target and Facebook itself — that placed recruitment ads limited to particular age groups, an investigation by ProPublica and The New York Times has found.
The ability of advertisers to deliver their message to the precise audience most likely to respond is the cornerstone of Facebook's business model. But using the system to expose job opportunities only to certain age groups has raised concerns about fairness to older workers.
Several experts questioned whether the practice is in keeping with the federal Age Discrimination in Employment Act of 1967, which prohibits bias against people 40 or older in hiring or employment. Many jurisdictions make it a crime to "aid" or "abet" age discrimination, a provision that could apply to companies like Facebook that distribute job ads.
"It's blatantly unlawful," said Debra Katz, a Washington employment lawyer who represents victims of discrimination.
Facebook defended the practice. "Used responsibly, age-based targeting for employment purposes is an accepted industry practice and for good reason: it helps employers recruit and people of all ages find work," said Rob Goldman, a Facebook vice president.
The revelations come at a time when the unregulated power of the tech companies is under increased scrutiny, and Congress is weighing whether to limit the immunity that it granted to tech companies in 1996 for third-party content on their platforms.
Facebook has argued in court filings that the law, the Communications Decency Act, makes it immune from liability for discriminatory ads.
Although Facebook is a relatively new entrant into the recruiting arena, it is rapidly gaining popularity with employers. Earlier this year, the social network launched a section of its site devoted to job ads. Facebook allows advertisers to select their audience, and then Facebook finds the chosen users with the extensive data it collects about its members.
The use of age targets emerged in a review of data originally compiled by ProPublica readers for a project about political ad placement on Facebook. Many of the ads include a disclosure by Facebook about why the user is seeing the ad, which can be anything from their age to their affinity for folk music.
The precision of Facebook's ad delivery has helped it dominate an industry once in the hands of print and broadcast outlets. The system, called microtargeting, allows advertisers to reach essentially whomever they prefer, including the people their analysis suggests are the most plausible hires or consumers, lowering the costs and vastly increasing efficiency.
Targeted Facebook ads were an important tool in Russia's efforts to influence the 2016 election. The social media giant has acknowledged that 126 million people saw Russia-linked content, some of which was aimed at particular demographic groups and regions. Facebook has also come under criticism for the disclosure that it accepted ads aimed at "Jew-haters" as well as housing ads that discriminated by race, gender, disability and other factors.
Other tech companies also offer employers opportunities to discriminate by age. ProPublica bought job ads on Google and LinkedIn that excluded audiences older than 40 — and the ads were instantly approved. Google said it does not prevent advertisers from displaying ads based on the user's age. After being contacted by ProPublica, LinkedIn changed its system to prevent such targeting in employment ads.
The practice has begun to attract legal challenges. On Wednesday, a class-action complaint alleging age discrimination was filed in federal court in San Francisco on behalf of the Communications Workers of America and its members — as well as all Facebook users 40 or older who may have been denied the chance to learn about job openings. The plaintiffs' lawyers said the complaint was based on ads for dozens of companies that they had discovered on Facebook.
The database of Facebook ads collected by ProPublica shows how often and precisely employers recruit by age. In a search for "part-time package handlers," United Parcel Service ran an ad aimed at people 18 to 24. State Farm pitched its hiring promotion to those 19 to 35.
Some companies, including Target, State Farm and UPS, defended their targeting as a part of a broader recruitment strategy that reached candidates of all ages. The group of companies making this case included Facebook itself, which ran career ads on its own platform, many aimed at people 25 to 60. "We completely reject the allegation that these advertisements are discriminatory," said Goldman of Facebook.
After being contacted by ProPublica and the Times, other employers, including Amazon, Northwestern Mutual and the New York City Department of Education, said they had changed or were changing their recruiting strategies.
"We recently audited our recruiting ads on Facebook and discovered some had targeting that was inconsistent with our approach of searching for any candidate over the age of 18," said Nina Lindsey, a spokeswoman for Amazon, which targeted some ads for workers at its distribution centers between the ages of 18 and 50. "We have corrected those ads."
Verizon did not respond to requests for comment.
Several companies argued that targeted recruiting on Facebook was comparable to advertising opportunities in publications like the AARP magazine or Teen Vogue, which are aimed at particular age groups. But this obscures an important distinction. Anyone can buy Teen Vogue and see an ad. Online, however, people outside the targeted age groups can be excluded in ways they will never learn about.
"What happens with Facebook is you don't know what you don't know," said David Lopez, a former general counsel for the Equal Employment Opportunity Commission who is one of the lawyers at the firm Outten & Golden bringing the age-discrimination case on behalf of the communication workers union.