Facebook not doing enough to protect civil rights: audit

Already facing an advertiser boycott, Facebook received more bad news Wednesday with a civil rights audit accusing it of making a series of “painful decisions” in recent months that have led to “serious setbacks” for U.S. civil rights.

Commissioned by Facebook two years ago, the external audit was led by Laura W. Murphy, a civil rights and civil liberties leader who spent 17 years as director of the American Civil Liberties Union’s legislative office. The audit focused only on the U.S. and was limited to the core Facebook product, excluding properties like Instagram.

While acknowledging some of the positive steps taken by Facebook, including more frequent consultations with civil rights leaders, a $100 million investment in Black-owned small businesses, and last year’s implementation of a new advertising system preventing U.S. marketers from running housing, employment or credit ads that targeted users by age, gender or zip code, the audit characterized Facebook’s response to civil rights as “too reactive and piecemeal.”

“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,” said the audit.

While civil rights leaders have been imploring Facebook to address hate speech and false or misleading content, one of the flash-points for recent criticism is the company’s hands-off approach to incendiary posts by U.S. president Donald Trump facilitating voter suppression and propagating hate/violent speech.

Today’s report said Facebook’s conclusion that Trump’s posts did not violate its community standards caused “considerable alarm” within the civil rights community. Facebook rival Twitter flagged the posts.

“These decisions exposed a major hole in Facebook’s understanding and application of civil rights,” the auditors 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. Our fear was (and continues to be) that these decisions establish terrible precedent for others to emulate.”

The auditors say they have “grave concerns” that a combination of the company’s decision to exempt politicians from fact-checking and the precedents set by its recent decisions on Trump’s posts, “leaves the door open for the platform to be used by other politicians to interfere with voting.”

Facebook’s chief operating officer Sheryl Sandberg said in a statement that the audit’s arrival in the midst of a massive advertiser boycott comes at an “important time” for the platform.

“Facebook stands firmly against hate,” said Sandberg. “Being a platform where everyone can make their voice heard is core to our mission, but that doesn’t mean it’s acceptable for people to spread hate. It’s not. We have clear policies against hate—and we strive constantly to get better and faster at enforcing them. We have made real progress over the years, but this work is never finished and we know what a big responsibility Facebook has to get better at finding and removing hateful content.”

The audit adds to the growing pressure faced by the social media platform as a result of the #StopHateForProfit ad boycott, which has grown to nearly 1,000 companies including Coca-Cola, Ford, HP, Starbucks, Unilever and Verizon.

The audit arrives a day after representatives from four of the civil rights organizations that are leading the advertiser boycott met with Sandberg and Facebook CEO Mark Zuckerberg.

In a statement, the group accused Facebook of treating the meeting as “nothing more than a PR exercise,” while Color of Change head Rashad Robinson told The New York Times that the executives showed up “expecting an A for attendance. Attending alone is not enough.”

“#StopHateForProfit didn’t hear anything today to convince us that Zuckerberg and his colleagues are taking action,” said the statement. “Instead of committing to a timeline to root out hate and disinformation on Facebook, the company’s leaders delivered the same old talking points to try to placate us without meeting our demands.”

Chris Powell