By Jeff Horwitz 

Facebook Inc. has been too reactive and slow in addressing hate speech, voter suppression and other problematic content on its platform, according to a report from lawyers hired by the company to audit its handling of civil-rights issues.

The report, made public early Wednesday, praises the social-media giant for undertaking a self-examination and making some meaningful changes, including instituting rules against voter suppression and creating a team to study algorithmic bias. But the 100-page document also calls Facebook's efforts inadequate given the harm some content can cause.

"Unfortunately, in our view Facebook's approach to civil rights remains too reactive and piecemeal," the auditors' report said. "Many in the civil rights community have become disheartened, frustrated and angry after years of engagement where they implored the company to do more to advance equality and fight discrimination, while also safeguarding free expression."

The report, which ends a two-year review by civil-rights attorney Laura Murphy and a team from law firm Relman Colfax PLLC, was released the day after a meeting Tuesday between Facebook leaders including Chief Executive Mark Zuckerberg and outside civil-rights advocates who have organized an advertiser boycott of the platform. Representatives of those groups said they didn't make meaningful progress on their demands.

"Today's audit report fairly points out shortcomings identified by the Auditors and makes it clear that the progress we've made is still just the beginning (and we agree)," Facebook wrote in response to the audit. It highlighted areas in which auditors said the company had improved, including the expansion of policies against census misinformation and voter suppression, Facebook's settlement of a long-running case over discrimination in the targeting of advertisements, and the company's efforts to increase diversity in its upper ranks, auditors said.

But the report faulted Facebook for not investing more in fighting organized hate against Muslims and Jews, inadequately policing political speech, and failing to root out many strains of white nationalist activity. The lack of progress on these and other issues "provokes legitimate questions about Facebook's full-throated commitment" to addressing its problems, the auditors said.

"At this point in history, the Auditors are concerned that those gains could be obscured by the vexing and heartbreaking decisions Facebook has made that represent significant setbacks for civil rights," the report says.

Facebook has struggled for years to placate critics who say it does too little to police abusive and misleading content on its platform, while also seeking to address those, especially on the right, who say its moderating practices are too aggressive and prone to bias.

The civil-rights groups that organized the ad boycott held a Zoom call Wednesday with people representing about 120 advertisers to discuss Facebook's moves this week and its audit. The groups said Facebook has taken some steps in the right direction, but has broadly failed to properly enforce its policies and allowed hate speech to proliferate on its platform.

To illustrate the point, Jonathan Greenblatt, chief executive of the Anti-Defamation League, highlighted several corporate ads that ran alongside inflammatory or hateful posts in the past two days. An ad for insurer Geico ran Tuesday next to a meme about Rep. Ilhan Omar that referred to her as "Aunt Jihadi," a post that ADL had previously flagged. A State Farm ad, also from Tuesday, showed up next to a post in a private group called MUSLIMS VS ZIONISTS that referenced putting Jewish people in ovens.

Advertisers don't always know what content runs adjacent to their brands. Representatives of State Farm and Geico didn't immediately respond to requests for comment.

The organizers said nearly 1,000 companies were pausing their advertising on Facebook, including those offering public support for the boycott and those taking quiet action behind the scenes. Facebook has a base of over eight million advertisers, and only a handful of the biggest ones have so far said they are pausing spending.

Carolyn Everson, a Facebook vice president, emailed advertisers on Wednesday to explain how the company is responding to the concerns raised by rights groups and in the auditors' report. "While we sometimes will disagree, especially when it comes to political speech and free expression, these findings have helped us learn a lot throughout the years about what we can do better," she said.

Sheryl Sandberg, Facebook's chief operating officer, pledged to do more on civil-rights issues after the auditors released initial findings in December 2018, and after a second, interim report a year ago. That update highlighted concerns including claims of both underenforcement of hate-speech policies that left hateful content on the platform, and overenforcement of those policies that led to removal of content where users spoke out against hate speech.

The latest report traces some of the auditors' concerns to Mr. Zuckerberg's talk on free speech last October at Georgetown University, and what it called his adherence "to a particular definition of free expression, even where that has meant allowing harmful and divisive rhetoric that amplifies hate speech and threatens civil rights."

Facebook has extensive policies for its handling of hate speech, voter suppression, false news and other objectionable content. It defines hate speech as a direct attack on people based on about a dozen "protected characteristics," including race, national origin, religious affiliation, and gender identity. Attacks include violent or dehumanizing speech, statements of inferiority, or calls for exclusion or segregation, it says.

The company also says it bars voter suppression efforts including content that distorts the dates or other details of votes or misrepresents whether votes will be counted, as well as paid advertising that suggests voting is useless or meaningless.

Often the controversies over these issues arise in determining whether specific posts violate those rules, which can be subjective.

The auditors said that Facebook has made some useful expansions to its hate-speech policies but still isn't working with a broad enough definition of harmful content. One specific request from civil-rights groups is to ban not simply overt praise for white nationalist entities and the use of established white nationalist slogans but also posts that contain the same messages phrased in different words.

The report calls out the company's choice not to take action against posts by President Trump that allegedly threatened violence or were allegedly meant to suppress voting. Mr. Zuckerberg had said he didn't think private companies should regulate political speech unless it was likely to undermine democratic participation or produce real-world violence.

"The Auditors vigorously made known our disagreement, as we believed that these posts clearly violated Facebook's policies," the report said. More broadly, the auditors said Facebook "has failed to grasp the urgency" of the threat that voter suppression efforts on its platform pose as the 2020 election approaches.

The report also said that Facebook had been too quick to dismiss reporting by The Wall Street Journal in a May article that found the company had watered down or killed internal efforts to study and address ways in which its products encouraged divisiveness and polarization.

"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 said.

Ms. Sandberg, responding to the latest report, wrote that Facebook would hire a civil-rights leader to help guide its efforts, and consider some of the auditors' other recommendations.

"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," Ms. Sandberg wrote.

Civil-rights groups that spoke with the auditors called on Facebook to do the work the auditors recommended.

"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," said Farhana Khera, president of Muslim Advocates.

Deepa Seetharaman contributed to this article.

Write to Jeff Horwitz at Jeff.Horwitz@wsj.com

 

(END) Dow Jones Newswires

July 08, 2020 16:58 ET (20:58 GMT)

Copyright (c) 2020 Dow Jones & Company, Inc.
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