Is Netflix Targeting Users By Race?

There's something funny happening with your Netflix thumbnails. The streaming giant has perfected a recommendations algorithm that keeps its subscribers happy, or so they probably thought. Their latest innovation — which seemingly sees Netflix targeting users by race and gender — may be doing more harm than good.

If you've scrolled through your Netflix homepage recently, and wondered why Lucy Liu graced the thumbnail of Set It Up instead of leads Zoey Deutch and Glen Powell, you're not alone. Recently, several black Netflix subscribers discovered that the thumbnails for shows and movies featured on the streaming service's homepage showed minor characters of color instead of the (usually white) leads.

Writer and Rise of Charm City podcast creator Stacia L. Brown shared some of these Netflix thumbnails from her homepage for movies like Like FatherLove Actually, and Set It Up, all of which featured black characters, some of whom barely had more than 10 minutes of screentime.

Brown's comments are full of black Netflix users who felt similarly targeted by the race. One person was upset to note that he felt "unnecessarily targeted" despite rarely watching "black" titles on the streaming service.

Netflix denied any allegations of its algorithm targeting users based on race, releasing a statement to The Fader saying:

Reports that we look at demographics when personalizing artwork are untrue. We don't ask members for their race, gender, or ethnicity so we cannot use this information to personalize their individual Netflix experience. The only information we use is a member's viewing history. In terms of thumbnails, these do differ and regularly change. This is to ensure that the images we show people are useful in deciding which shows to watch.

Upon checking my own Netflix homepage, I personally didn't find many thumbnails targeting my race other than an abundance of international drama recommendations (this may be because of the scarcity of Asian actors in Hollywood movies in general). But ScreenCrush did a more comprehensive study, comparing the homepages of several of the writers, which ScreenCrush's Matt Singer documented in this fascinating thread:

Netflix has fairly been transparent about its introduction of "personalized" thumbnail artwork. In a Medium post describing the feature, Netflix explained that the "single perfect artwork for each title" was intended to attract "the most plays from the largest fraction of our members." The streaming service claimed that these personalized artworks would be driven by genre preferences, but they did kind of allude to race being a factor, stating, "However, given the enormous diversity in taste and preferences, wouldn't it be better if we could find the best artwork for each of our members to highlight the aspects of a title that are specifically relevant to them?"

But it's a tad creepy, given that this algorithm somehow knows to target users by race even if they don't watch "black" movies or "Asian" movies. It's an algorithm that's ripe for mismarketing and potentially limits users from discovering new movies outside of their comfort zone. Both of which are issues which are likely to continue to dog Netflix as the streaming giant exponentially expands its catalogue.