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
"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
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
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
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
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
"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
"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)
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