A report released Wednesday by civil rights auditors warns that Facebook’s failure to rein in toxic speech, racism and misinformation could have serious repercussions on the presidential election and may even suppress voter turnout.
The report, the result of a years-long internal civil rights audit of Facebook’s policies and practices, took particular exception with the company’s decision not to take down inflammatory rhetoric and false claims from President Donald Trump.
“The prioritization of free expression over all other values, such as equality and non-discrimination, is deeply troubling,” civil rights activist Laura Murphy wrote in the audit, which began in 2018 at the urging of civil rights organizations and some members of Congress.
What civil rights groups want:Stop hate speech and harassment of Black users on Facebook
Civil rights leaders condemn Zuckerberg:Accuse Facebook of fueling racial hatred and violence
The report, prepared with the civil rights law firm Relman Colfax, calls for Facebook to more rigorously and consistently enforce its voter suppression policies and to bring in an experienced civil rights executive to guide policies and vet products, steps the auditors say are long overdue. Facebook said Tuesday that it’s in the process of hiring a civil rights vice president who will report to the company’s chief legal officer.
Criticism of the company has intensified since nationwide protests over the death of George Floyd brought the issue of racial justice to the forefront.
Facebook maintains it is making strides in identifying and removing misinformation and other harmful and divisive content.
“This audit has been a deep analysis of how we can strengthen and advance civil rights at every level of our company,” Facebook’s Chief Operating Officer Sheryl Sandberg wrote in a Facebook post Wednesday. “We have a long way to go – but we are making progress.”
On Tuesday, an hourlong meeting held by Facebook CEO Mark Zuckerberg and key executives with civil rights groups did little to quiet criticism.
Murphy told USA TODAY that more pressure should be brought to bear on Facebook.
“We have to do more to convince Facebook’s leadership of all the ways that people will try to weaponize the platform to suppress voting,” Murphy said in an interview. “We have to continue to push and to insist that they do a better job of protecting voting.”
The prevailing fear among dozens of civil rights organizations and hundreds of advocates consulted by auditors, that Facebook will repeat the mistakes of the 2016 presidential election when Black Americans and other minorities were targeted by Russian operatives looking to sow racial division and plant disinformation. Only this time, they fear, the efforts to suppress turnout will not come from abroad.
“In 2016, the problem was very clearly foreign actors, and in 2020, the problem is domestic actors,” Murphy said. “Facebook has enough policies to handle domestic actors but the auditors don’t agree with the way that they’ve interpreted those policies and that’s what’s giving us heartburn.”
Zuckerberg has defended his hands-off approach to politicians and Trump, emphasizing Facebook’s commitment to free speech, even as competitors such as Twitter and Snapchat label or downplay Trump’s posts on their platforms.
At issue are Facebook posts by Trump, two of which made inaccurate statements about mail-in ballots in the November election, according to the audit. The third appeared to threaten violence against Black Lives Matter protesters, which Murphy compared to putting a match to a tinder box.
“We are in a very tricky moment and anything that incites violence has to be taken very seriously,” she said.
Though Facebook has cracked down on the anti-vaccination movement and on COVID-19 misinformation, the failure to remove these posts “exposed a major hole in Facebook’s understanding and application of civil rights,” the audit found.
When powerful politicians don’t have to abide by the same rules as other Facebook users, “a hierarchy of speech is created that privileges certain voices over less powerful voices,” Murphy wrote.
Jessica J. González, co-CEO of Free Press and co-founder of Change the Terms, called on Facebook to take action.
“Facebook policy and enforcement willfully ignores and even enables the problem of hate mongers on the platform, including 100 active white supremacists. There should not be a ‘final’ civil rights audit when hate and election misinformation continue endangering our lives and democracy,” González said in a statement. “Mark Zuckerberg cannot lead Facebook to stop hateful activity from spreading when he is unable to acknowledge how far behind Facebook truly is when it comes to protecting people of color from the danger the platform continues to pose to our lives.”
Hundreds of companies pull ads:Will the Facebook advertising boycott force the social media company to change?
Sheryl Sandberg on boycott:Facebook will get better at removing hate speech
Hundreds of companies, including top brands Unilever, Ford and Pfizer, pulled advertising from Facebook this month to protest the spread of racial hatred, white supremacy and violent threats on Facebook and Instagram. The boycott organized by civil rights leaders known as #StopHateForProfit followed a push back from Facebook employees who staged a virtual “walkout” last month.
“I think that the leadership of the company realizes the concern about those posts is not dying down, and so I’m hoping there’s change but I don’t have a crystal ball,” Murphy said.
Facebook declined to say whether Zuckerberg would alter its policies. He recently agreed to label posts from politicians that violate Facebook’s rules. Murphy told USA TODAY that she wants Facebook to consider free expression “in a way that is balanced by civil rights concerns.”
“I do think that Mark has gotten more memos on civil rights and has had more meetings with civil rights leaders in the last couple of months than ever before,” Murphy said. “You can’t be in this moment in our history and not hear what people are saying about the thirst for equality and due process and fairness and justice.”
While Facebook has made gains in areas such cracking down on discriminatory targeting of housing, employment, credit advertising and on census misinformation, Murphy said, the audit makes other recommendations: