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 the platform.

"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 says.

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 ovens.

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

"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 ad placement.

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 agree)."

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 meaningless.

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 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.

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 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.

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)

Copyright (c) 2020 Dow Jones & Company, Inc.
Facebook (NASDAQ:FB)
Historical Stock Chart
From Jul 2020 to Aug 2020 Click Here for more Facebook Charts.
Facebook (NASDAQ:FB)
Historical Stock Chart
From Aug 2019 to Aug 2020 Click Here for more Facebook Charts.