Civil Rights policies

Auditors hammer Facebook over civil rights decisions

Facebook’s failure to remove the Trump voting-related posts and close enforcement gaps seems to reflect a statement of values that protecting free expression is more important than other stated company values


Attorneys hired to review Facebook's civil rights policies concluded Wednesday that the company has failed to adequately combat discrimination and voter suppression on its platform, and rebuked the social network's executives for prioritizing political speech over civil rights and other values.

The auditors called Facebook's approach to civil rights "too reactive and piecemeal" in the long-awaited review, and raised concern that the company's recent progress is threatened by its decision not to take action on posts from President Donald Trump that made unsubstantiated claims about mail-in ballots.

"Facebook’s failure to remove the Trump voting-related posts and close enforcement gaps seems to reflect a statement of values that protecting free expression is more important than other stated company values," the auditors wrote in the report, which was two years in the making.

The audit's findings are likely to embolden Facebook's critics in the civil rights community.

The company-sanctioned report reflects a number of arguments advocates have made about the company, including that Facebook's policies prohibiting voter suppression and misinformation are not applied evenly, and that the company should be taking stronger steps to root out white supremacy and other forms of hate.

While the auditors acknowledge Facebook has made strides to root out foreign election interference — as was prevalent on the platform during the 2016 race — they write that its failure to take action against misleading statements by Trump sets a "dangerous precedent" for speech allowed on the platform.

"Facebook has made policy and enforcement choices that leave our election exposed to interference by the President and others who seek to use misinformation to sow confusion and suppress voting," the audit states.

Facebook should continue to broaden its policies about what constitutes voter suppression and misinformation and enforce that policy to the fullest extent possible, they write.

A much-discussed speech that Facebook CEO Mark Zuckerberg delivered at Georgetown University in October in which he spoke of the social network's obligation to free speech alarmed auditors.

They expressed concern to Facebook leaders that Zuckerberg's commitment to "protect a particular definition of free expression" would allow for harmful and divisive rhetoric on the platform that conflicts with the company's pledge to uplift civil rights.

"The lack of clarity about the relationship between those two values is devastating," the auditors wrote. "It will require hard balancing, but that kind of balancing of rights and interests has been part of the American dialogue since its founding and there is no reason that Facebook cannot harmonize those values, if it really wants to do so."

Auditors applauded Facebook for establishing a Civil Rights Task Force that meets monthly under the direction of Chief Operating Officer Sheryl Sandberg, and for recently launching a search for a vice president who will oversee civil rights initiatives and training.

But the auditors said they are nevertheless "deeply concerned" that Facebook has not hired more civil rights experts across the company over the past two years, saying its recent commitments "do not go far enough" to address the scale of the problem.

Facebook tapped civil rights attorneys Laura Murphy and Megan Cacace to lead the independent review of its civil rights policies. The pair interviewed hundreds of civil rights leaders and lawmakers to catalog their concerns with Facebook, and then dug into Facebook's existing practices and policies.

Wednesday's report marks the audit's third and final installment, though Murphy and Cacace have agreed to continue advising Facebook in a capacity still to be determined.

The auditors are finishing their review at a time when Facebook's relationship with civil rights organizations is at a low.

Many advocates are spearheading a temporary Facebook advertising boycott that has attracted the support of nearly 1,000 brands, including big names like Verizon and Unilever, because they say the social network has failed to address hate speech and disinformation that disproportionately effects minority communities.

Boycott organizers left a meeting with Facebook's most senior executives Tuesday feeling their demands are not being taken seriously.

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