For the last two years, Facebook has touted a major civil rights audit as proof that it was taking seriously allegations that it was aiding the spread of hate and misinformation. The results of that report were released Wednesday morning, and while it praised the company for making some necessary improvements to its platform and processes, the independent audit also made clear that the world’s most widely used social media site hadn’t done enough to curb hate speech and discrimination.
The 100-page report, conducted by civil rights lawyers Laura Murphy and Megan Cace, began two years ago at the behest of civil rights organizations and Congress. Auditors culled through Facebook’s policies, practices and structure to determine what it was—and more pertinently, what it was not—doing to address racist, xenophobic, and discriminatory messages proliferating on its platform.
“While the audit process has been meaningful, and has led to some significant improvements in the platform, we have also watched the company make painful decisions over the last nine months with real-world consequences that are serious setbacks for civil rights,” wrote Murphy.
While the audit praised Facebook for expanding its voter suppression policies, improving its appeals and penalties process, and for engaging in more frequent consultations with civil rights leaders, it also expressed serious concern over how a lack of robust action on voter suppression could potentially affect the November 2020 election, specifically citing several of Donald Trump’s posts from May, which threatened violence against Black Lives Matter protesters.
Murphy also specifically pointed to Zuckerberg’s recent comments and decisions regarding free speech over-regulation as “deeply troubling.”
From the report:
The Auditors have expressed significant concern about the company’s steadfast commitment since Mark’s October 2019 Georgetown speech to protect a particular definition of free expression, even where that has meant allowing harmful and divisive rhetoric that amplifies hate speech and threatens civil rights. Elevating free expression is a good thing, but it should apply to everyone. When it means that powerful politicians do not have to abide by the same rules that everyone else does, a hierarchy of speech is created that privileges certain voices over less powerful voices. The prioritization of free expression over all other values, such as equality and non-discrimination, is deeply troubling to the Auditors.
….Facebook has not, as of this writing, reversed the decisions about the Trump posts and the Auditors are deeply troubled by that because of the precedent they establish for other speakers on the platform and the ways those decisions seem to gut policies the Auditors and the civil rights community worked hard to get Facebook to adopt.
The auditors also expressed dismay that a proper civil rights infrastructure had not yet been set up at Facebook, and called for the company to commit more resources to studying and addressing organized hate against Muslims, Jews, and other targeted groups, as well as a more aggressive approach to wiping white separatism and white nationalist messaging from the social networking site.
Facebook Chief Operating Officer Sheryl Sandberg, in response to the audit, said the findings “couldn’t come at a more important time.”
“Facebook stands firmly against hate,” she wrote in a statement, adding, “As hard as it has been to have our shortcomings exposed by experts, it has undoubtedly been a really important process for our company.” She urged other major tech companies to conduct similar investigations into their companies.
The report comes at a tense time for Facebook. Over the last several weeks, more than 300 companies have pulled paid advertisements from the platform as part of the #StopHateforProfit campaign. This includes some of its biggest advertisers, including Coca-Cola, Starbucks, and Unilever (though a New York Times article notes that most of these companies are still reaching consumers on the platform through unpaid content).
On the eve of the report’s publication, Sandberg and Facebook founder Mark Zuckerberg met with several prominent civil rights organizations, including the NAACP and Color of Change to discuss the audit. As the Times reports, activists left the hour-plus Zoom meeting feeling like they had no firm actions or commitments from Facebook leadership, who instead attempted to “spin” their responses.
Upon leaving the meeting, Color of Change president Rashad Robinson expressed his disappointment with Facebook on Twitter.
“They have had our demands for years and yet it is abundantly clear that they are not ready to address the vitriolic hate on their platform,” he wrote.
These demands included updating its community standards, as well as hiring a top executive with a civil rights background. In conversation with the Times, Robinson compared the recent independent audit to a doctor’s visit.
“It’s like going to the doctor, getting a new set of recommendations about your diet and then not doing anything about it and wondering why you’re not getting any healthier,” he said.
That sentiment was echoed by other civil rights organizations, including Muslim Advocates, which helped lead the call for Facebook to conduct an independent civil rights audit two years ago.
“Facebook is enabling violence and genocide against Muslims. 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 organization wrote in response to Facebook leadership. “This audit is illuminating but it is ultimately meaningless if Facebook does not agree to take dramatic and substantial steps to address the many failures outlined in the report. “
NCAA President Derrick Johnson also rejected Zuckerberg’s responses, writing in a statement shared with The Root, “Facebook wants us to accept the same old rhetoric, repackaged as a fresh response.”
“Mark Zuckerberg, you aren’t breaking things, you are breaking people,” Johnson continued. “With a stroke of a pen, you could make Facebook better for your users, your advertisers, and society. We hope that you continue thinking about the consequences of what you have wrought and come back to the table soon with real change.”