Facebook simply has not done enough to fight problems including hate speech and voter suppression, according to a report culminating a two-year independent audit of the social giant’s practices and policies. That has included Facebook’s failure to take action against disinformation and inflammatory comments posted by President Donald Trump, the report said.
“Unfortunately, in our view Facebook’s approach to civil rights remains too reactive and piecemeal,” the authors of the report, released Wednesday, wrote. “Many in the civil rights community have become disheartened, frustrated and angry after years of engagement where they implored the company to do more to advance equality and fight discrimination, while also safeguarding free expression.”
While the report also outlines “a number of positive and consequential steps that the company has taken,” the auditors wrote that they “are concerned that those gains could be obscured by the vexing and heartbreaking decisions Facebook has made that represent significant setbacks for civil rights.”
The audit and the resulting 89-page report (available at this link) were led by noted civil rights expert Laura W. Murphy and Megan Cacace, partner with civil-rights law firm Relman Colfax. Facebook commissioned the audit in 2018.
The release of the report comes a day after CEO Mark Zuckerberg and other Facebook leaders met with the organizers of the #StopHateForProfit initiative — who have organized an advertising boycott of the social-media giant in an attempt to coerce Facebook into dealing more forcefully with hate speech and harassment. More than 900 marketers, including Unilever, Coca-Cola, Microsoft, Target, Starbucks, Verizon and Acura, have said they are temporarily suspending ad spending on Facebook. The advocacy groups, which include the NAACP and the Anti-Defamation League, universally expressed disappointment in the meeting and described Facebook’s attempts to assuage their concerns as PR “spin.”
The civil rights experts’ report said Facebook has not invested enough to combat organized hate against Muslims and Jews. Specifically, it criticized the company for blocking white-supremacist content by identifying the phrases “white nationalism” or “white separatism,” rather than applying a broader lens to content espousing a white-nationalist ideology.
“The Auditors do not believe that Facebook is sufficiently attuned to the depth of concern on the issue of polarization and the way that the algorithms used by Facebook inadvertently fuel extreme and polarizing content,” the report said.
The report cited Zuckerberg’s October 2019 speech at Georgetown University in which he said protecting free expression was Facebook’s overriding priority and stated, “I don’t think it’s right for a private company to censor politicians or the news in a democracy.” In their report, the auditors said, “The prioritization of free expression over all other values, such as equality and nondiscrimination, is deeply troubling.”
The auditors called out Facebook’s inaction on Trump posts in May 2020, including disinformation about mail-in voting and his May 29 remark about unrest in Minneapolis in which he said, “Any difficulty and we will assume control but, when the looting starts, the shooting starts. Thank you!” Facebook’s determination that those posts didn’t violate its policies has “caused considerable alarm for the Auditors and the civil rights community,” the auditors wrote in the report.
They said the decision to leave up Trump’s “looting and shooting” remark, which has a racist history, “allowed the propagation of hate/violent speech.” And, according to the report, letting Trump’s voting misinformation go unchecked “establishes a terrible precedent that may lead other politicians and non-politicians to spread false information about legal voting methods, which would effectively allow the platform to be weaponized to suppress voting.” Twitter, in contrast to Facebook, hid Trump’s “looting and shooting” comment and added a fact-check label to his inaccurate mail-in voting tweet.
“These decisions exposed a major hole in Facebook’s understanding and application of civil rights,” Murphy and Cacace wrote. “While these decisions were made ultimately at the highest level, we believe civil rights expertise was not sought and applied to the degree it should have been and the resulting decisions were devastating.”
In a response to the auditors’ report, Facebook COO Sheryl Sandberg said in a statement that “There are no quick fixes to these issues — nor should there be.”
“This audit has been a deep analysis of how we can strengthen and advance civil rights at every level of our company — but it is the beginning of the journey, not the end,” Sandberg wrote. “What has become increasingly clear is that we have a long way to go. As hard as it has been to have our shortcomings exposed by experts, it has undoubtedly been a really important process for our company. We would urge companies in our industry and beyond to do the same.”
Facebook has committed to hire a civil rights leader “who will continue to push us on these issues internally,” and plans to recruit staff with civil rights expertise for “core teams,” according to Sandberg. Among other steps, she said the company has strengthened its voter suppression policies since the 2016 and 2018 elections and has pledged “to bring on 30% more people of color, including 30% more Black people, in leadership positions.”
In a Facebook post Tuesday ahead of the meeting with the #StopHateForProfit representatives, Sandberg claimed, “We are making changes – not for financial reasons or advertiser pressure, but because it is the right thing to do.”
Meanwhile, the independently staffed Facebook Oversight Board — charged with making decisions “on what content Facebook and Instagram should allow or remove, based on respect for freedom of expression and human rights,” per its description — said on Twitter Tuesday that it will not be operational until the fall of 2020. The so-called “Facebook Supreme Court,” already delayed, had been aiming to launch in the first half of this year. Facebook last year said it was making an initial $130 million investment in the board.