Civil rights leaders who instigated an unprecedented ad boycott of Facebook renewed criticism of the social media company for tolerating hate speech, misinformation, and harassment. In a meeting with Facebook executives on Tuesday, and a civil rights “audit” released Wednesday, activists demanded the company act more forcefully against specific posts, and change its management structure and business model.
The audit, commissioned by Facebook in 2018, found the company has been slow to adopt changes to protect users from discrimination and harassment. “Facebook has made notable progress in some areas, but it has not yet devoted enough resources or moved with sufficient speed to tackle the multitude of civil rights challenges that are before it,” concludes the 89-page report, composed by Laura Murphy, the former director of the American Civil Liberties Union's legislative office.
Murphy describes a “seesaw of progress and setbacks,” noting important steps forward for the platform. Since 2018, Facebook has held regular meetings with civil rights leaders, adopted new rules barring white supremacist content and discriminatory ad targeting, and created a new senior civil rights leadership role to oversee more changes.
But the report concludes that Facebook still lags on its diversity goals, especially in leadership positions, and fails to consult the civil rights community on key decisions. Most notable were recent decisions not to remove posts including comments by President Trump about shooting looters or falsehoods about mail-in ballots. Those decisions “exposed a major hole in Facebook’s understanding and application of civil rights,” the report reads. Such choices “leave our election exposed to interference by the president and others who seek to use misinformation to sow confusion and suppress voting.”
Activists who attended Tuesday’s meeting with Facebook CEO Mark Zuckerberg and COO Sheryl Sandberg called it a disappointment. The group, Stop Hate For Profit, asked the executives to improve fact-checking and ban misleading political ads, remove both public and private groups that support white supremacy, and issue refunds to advertisers whose ads appear next to hateful content. Attendees said Zuckerberg and Sandberg were evasive.
“I fully accept that we can't snap our fingers and make [this] magically fall into place tomorrow,” said Jessica González, co-CEO of the open internet advocacy group Free Press. González attended the meeting and said Facebook avoided even “bare minimum commitments on what the [reforms] will look like or what the timelines will look like. And that's super disappointing because in the meantime, the safety of our communities and the health of our democracy are at stake.”
Attendees criticized Zuckerberg’s framing of their concerns. “Toward the end of the call, [Mark] said, ‘It's helpful to hear the nuances of these issues,’” said Jonathan Greenblatt, CEO of the Anti-Defamation League. “And I said, ‘Mark, there is no nuance to white nationalism.’ This is not a matter of moral relativism.”
The civil rights leaders want Facebook to change not just specific decisions of what posts to remove or leave online but its management structure and business model as well. Changing one affects the other, they argue, because Facebook’s decisions around defining hate speech are shaped by the company's financial and political goals.
Asked to comment on the audit and critical statements by civil rights leaders, a Facebook spokesperson referred to a blog post Tuesday by Sandberg. “We have clear policies against hate,” Sandberg wrote. “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.”
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Some attendees of Tuesday’s meeting say the company’s reluctance to remove white supremacist content reflects a fear of upsetting conservative lawmakers. “One of the things that became very clear was the way in which [content moderation] decisions flow directly through” Facebook’s vice president of global public policy, Joel Kaplan, said Rashad Robinson, CEO of Color of Change, a racial equity nonprofit.
González agrees, saying the arrangement presents a conflict of interest. “Lobbyists have an interest in staying tight with elected officials,” she says, but content moderators should be more removed. “There needs to be a division, a wall between the people who make content moderation decisions [and] those whose job it is to keep government actors happy, regardless of who is in power at Facebook.”
More than 900 advertisers have joined the Stop Hate For Profit campaign, including Ford, The North Face, Unilever, Microsoft, and Starbucks. The Wall Street Journal estimates the advertisers collectively account for less than 1 percent of Facebook’s ad revenue. Gizmodo reported that some companies joining the boycott are only pulling their ads from domestic users, while still buying ads internationally.
González sees this as more evidence of the urgency of reform, as the company’s huge revenues allows it to move slowly even as it endangers huge swaths of users.
“It's in their business interest to let all this hate run free,” González said. “It's in their business interests to have an unsophisticated view on free expression.”