Just-Released Civil Rights Audit Of Facebook Called 'Damning'

On the heels of a Tuesday meeting that resulted in the #StopHateForProfit organizers reaffirming their call for advertisers to continue boycotting Facebook, Facebook Inc. is today releasing an independent “civil rights” audit that is already intensifying criticism of the company. 

“Far too often, [Facebook Inc. CEO Mark] Zuckerberg has chosen to allow posts spewing bigotry and lies to remain on Facebook in the name of free speech,” arguesNew York Times editorial board member Greg Bensinger, who is among those who saw a prepublication copy. “Now, a thorough and damning audit of the company, two years in the making and solicited by Facebook, confirms those fears.” 

“Two years ago, we helped lead the call for Facebook to conduct an independent civil rights audit,” tweeted (above) Farhana Khera, executive director of Muslim Advocates. “Today, we have seen the final report and it confirms what we already know: Facebook is enabling hate and violence against Muslims.”

In a post on the group’s site, he continued: “We don’t have time for more empty promises and futile data collection exercises. We need action. Facebook must, finally, take responsibility for the hate it has unleashed on the world.”

The audit — now posted online by Facebook — was led by civil rights advocate Laura Murphy and a team from the civil rights law firm Relman Colfax, PLLC led by one of the firm’s partners, Megan Cacace.

The authors of the 100-page report begin by laying out a series of improvements that Facebook Inc. has made voluntarily in response to feedback during the audit process.

Some of these include: Reaching an “historic” civil rights settlement in March 2019, under which Facebook committed to implement a new advertising system so advertisers running U.S. housing, employment, and credit ads will no longer be allowed to target by age, gender, or Zip Code; expanding its voter suppression policies; creating a “robust” census interference policy; taking steps to build greater civil rights awareness and accountability across the company on a long-term basis; an improved appeals and penalties process; more frequent consultations with civil rights leaders; and changing various content moderation practices — including an expanded policy that bans explicit praise, support and representation of white nationalism and white separatism, and a new policy that prohibits content encouraging or calling for the harassment of others.

However, the authors also lay out strong criticisms and calls for further action on the company’s part.

Facebook Inc. CEO Mark Zuckerberg just recently said that Facebook will stop making “newsworthiness” exceptions for posts from public figures that incite violence or suppress voting or otherwise violate its policies. 

But the auditors assert that Facebook's interpretations of what violates its policies is erratic. 

And they particularly stress the dangers and already-felt consequences of Zuckerberg’s decision “to treat speech from politicians as newsworthy that should be seen and heard and not interfered with by Facebook unless outweighed by the risk of harm… [thereby giving] the powerful more freedom on the platform to make false, voter-suppressive and divisive statements than the average user.” 

Facebook “has been far too reluctant to adopt strong rules to limit misinformation and voter suppression,” they continue. “With less than five months before a presidential election, it confounds the Auditors as to why Facebook has failed to grasp the urgency of interpreting existing policies to make them effective against suppression and ensuring that their enforcement tools are as effective as possible… Facebook’s decisions in May of 2020 to let stand on three posts by President Trump have caused considerable alarm for the Auditors and the civil rights community. One post allowed the propagation of hate/violent speech and two facilitated voter suppression. In all three cases, Facebook asserted that the posts did not violate its Community Standards”… 

“After the company publicly left up the looting and shooting post, more than five political and merchandise ads have run on Facebook sending the same dangerous message that ‘looters’ and ‘Antifa terrorists’ can or should be shot by armed citizens… 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 also states that after years of trying to get Facebook Inc. to “do more to advance equality and fight discrimination, while also safeguarding free speech,” civil rights leaders have “become disheartened, frustrated and angry.”

“Unfortunately, in our view, Facebook’s approach to civil rights remains too reactive and piecemeal,” it concludes.

The report also lays out a series of steps urged by the auditors, including: Be consistent and clear about the company’s commitment to civil rights laws and principles, and address the tension of civil rights and free speech head on.

On the latter point, the auditors argue that “the value of non-discrimination is equally important [to protecting free speech], and that the two need not be mutually exclusive… It will require hard balancing, but that kind of balancing of rights and interests has been part of the American dialogue since its founding and there is no reason that Facebook cannot harmonize those values, if it really wants to do so.”

In a blog about the report that was posted today, Facebook Inc. COO Sheryl Sandberg notes that, “While the audit was planned, and most of it carried out, long before recent events, its release couldn’t come at a more important time.”

“We have clear policies against hate — and we strive constantly to get better and faster at enforcing them,” she continues. “The audit looked at a wide range of civil rights issues, including our policies against hate. 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. 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.”

Sandberg summarizes some of the auditors’ recommendations, although she does not outright state that Facebook Inc. will act on them.

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