Audit Says Facebook’s “Vexing And Heartbreaking Decisions” A Setback For Civil Rights

A two-year independent civil rights audit of Facebook worred that any advances by the platform that reaches more than 2 billion people “could be obscured by the vexing and heartbreaking decisions Facebook has made that represent significant setbacks for civil rights.”

The highly-anticipated third and last update to an audit that started in 2018 was led by Laura Murphy, a civil rights and civil liberties leader and attorneys from civil rights law firm Relman Colfax, led by partner Megan Cacace. They interviewed over 100 civil rights organizations and hundreds of activists.

“This two-year journey has had a profound effect on the way we think about our impact on the world,” said Chief Operating Officer Sheryl Sandberg Wednesday.

The audit, which focused only on the U.S. and the core Facebook app, noted a number of measures the company’s taken to address concerns during including controls that won’t allow advertisers running housing, employment and credit ads to target by age, gender or zip code.

But the 100-page document concluded that efforts have been “piecemeal” and “reactive,” and colored by Facebook’s core policy outlined by Vice President of Global Affairs and Communications, Nick Clegg, in 2019. He said it had been and would continue to exempt politicians from its third-party fact checking program and that the company had a standing policy to treat speech from politicians as newsworthy, to be seen and heard and not interfered with by Facebook unless outweighed by the risk of harm.

In a speech last October, founder and CEO Mark Zuckerberg committed  “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,” the audit said.

As a result, “as the final report is being issued, the frustration directed at Facebook from some quarters is at the highest level seen since the company was founded, and certainly since the Civil Rights Audit started in 2018.”

A coalition of civil rights groups is currently spearheading an advertising boycott of the platform and was disheartened by a meeting with Facebook executives yesterday.

“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.”

The audit doesn’t compare Facebook’s civil rights performance to its tech industry peers, noting, “In some areas it may outperform peers with respect to civil rights, and in other areas, it may not. The Auditors are not privy to how other companies operate and therefore do not draw comparisons in this report.”

Twitter was the first to slap a warning on Tweets by President Donald Trump and other platforms have begun to take a harder line on POTUS’ most incendiary or factually challenged postings. Conservatives have accused social media of censorship. Zuckerberg has often noted the criticism flying at Facebook from both sides.

Auditors said they would like to see the company go further to address civil rights concerns in a host of areas:

-A stronger interpretation of its voter suppression policies — an interpretation that makes those policies effective against voter suppression and prohibits content like the Trump voting posts — and more robust and more consistent enforcement of those policies leading up to the U.S. 2020 election.

-More visible and consistent prioritization of civil rights in company decision-making overall.

-More resources invested to study and address organized hate against Muslims, Jews and other targeted groups on the platform.

-A commitment to go beyond banning explicit references to white separatism and white nationalism to also prohibit express praise, support and representation of white separatism and white nationalism even where the terms themselves are not used.

-More concrete action and specific commitments to take steps to address concerns about algorithmic bias or discrimination.

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