By Jeff Horwitz
Facebook Inc. and its detractors tried to win over advertisers
Wednesday, after a company-commissioned audit found continued
problems with how the social-media giant polices hate speech and
other problematic content on its platform.
The auditors' report, by civil-rights attorney Laura Murphy and
a team from law firm Relman Colfax PLLC, 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.
"Unfortunately, in our view Facebook's approach to civil rights
remains too reactive and piecemeal," says the report, released the
day after Facebook Chief Executive Mark Zuckerberg met with
civil-rights advocates who have organized an advertiser boycott of
"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
Carolyn Everson, a Facebook vice president, emailed advertisers
on Wednesday to explain how it 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.
Representatives of the groups that organized the boycott held a
Zoom call Wednesday with people representing about 120 advertisers.
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.
Jonathan Greenblatt, CEO of the Anti-Defamation League,
highlighted several 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
Advertisers don't always know what content runs adjacent to
their brands. Geico didn't immediately respond to requests for
"We do not condone hate speech and believe in a world where
everyone is treated with dignity," a State Farm spokeswoman said,
adding that the insurer was reaching out to Facebook to rectify the
The organizers said nearly 1,000 companies were pausing
advertising on Facebook, including those offering public support
for the boycott and those taking action behind the scenes. Facebook
has a base of over eight million advertisers, and only a handful of
the biggest ones have said they are pausing spending.
Facebook has long struggled to placate critics who say it does
too little to police harmful content -- while also seeking to
assuage those, especially on the right, who say its moderating
practices are too aggressive and prone to bias.
On Wednesday, Facebook highlighted areas where auditors said it
improved, including expanded policies against census misinformation
and voter suppression, settlement of a long-running case over
discrimination in ad targeting, and efforts to increase diversity
in its upper ranks.
But Facebook also said: "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
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, adding that Facebook's progress "could be obscured by the
vexing and heartbreaking decisions Facebook has made that represent
significant setbacks for civil rights."
The auditors took issue with what it called Mr. Zuckerberg's
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 handling objectionable
content. It defines hate speech as attacks on people based on about
a dozen "protected characteristics," including race, 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
and paid advertising that suggests voting is useless or
Controversies sometimes center on 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
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.
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 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.
The report ends a two-year review that Facebook commissioned of
how it handles of civil-rights issues. 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
an interim report a year ago.
Ms. Sandberg wrote Wednesday that Facebook would hire a
civil-rights leader to help guide its efforts and consider other
recommendations of the auditors.
"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 wrote.
Deepa Seetharaman contributed to this article.
Write to Jeff Horwitz at Jeff.Horwitz@wsj.com
(END) Dow Jones Newswires
July 08, 2020 20:11 ET (00:11 GMT)
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