Opinion | Facebook Flunks New Audit on Civil Rights and Hate Speech

Opinion | Facebook Flunks New Audit on Civil Rights and Hate Speech

It’s time for Mark Zuckerberg to really start listening.

Civil rights and good government groups and users have been shouting from the rooftops for years for real change at the world’s most powerful social media company. Facebook, they say, has helped enable misinformation about the coronavirus, elections, political repression — as well as incite actual violence. Critics have long warned about President Trump’s spread of misinformation on the platform, where hate groups like white supremacists have also found a cozy home.

Far too often Mr. Zuckerberg has chosen to allow posts spewing bigotry and lies to remain on Facebook in the name of free speech. Now, a thorough and damning audit of the company, two-years in the making and solicited by Facebook, confirms those fears.

“With each success the auditors became more hopeful that Facebook would develop a more coherent and positive plan of action that demonstrated, in word and deed, the company’s commitment to civil rights,” wrote the auditors in their 100-page report, a prepublication draft of which was obtained by The New York Times. “Unfortunately, in our view Facebook’s approach to civil rights remains too reactive and piecemeal.”

“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 auditors wrote.

Particularly galling, they wrote, is Mr. Zuckerberg’s position on so-called political speech, which is allowed to remain on the site even when it is demonstrably false, misleading or sometimes dangerous. Mr. Trump’s warning to protesters in May that “when the looting starts, the shooting starts” can only be interpreted as a threat.

“After the company publicly left up the looting and shooting post, more than five political and merchandise ads have run on Facebook sending the same dangerous message that ‘looters’ and ‘Antifa terrorists’ can or should be shot by armed citizens,” wrote the auditors, which include civil rights advocate Laura Murphy and a team from the law firm Relman Colfax PLLC, led by partner Megan Cacace.

“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,” they wrote. Mr. Zuckerberg said leaving the post up is about protecting free speech (Twitter, at least, put a warning on the post).

But Mr. Zuckerberg is not enabling free speech, he’s just privileging some of it. “When it means that powerful politicians do not have to abide by the same rules that everyone else does, a hierarchy of speech is created that privileges certain voices over less powerful voices,” the report found.

That means posts by regular folks who are less likely to be believed and or widely read can be taken down with impunity. Mr. Zuckerberg should listen to his auditors. He should listen to his employees, some of who walked off the job in protest last month.

He should listen to his advertisers, many of who are halting marketing on the site until it can be cleaned up — but he’s said “these advertisers will be back on the platform soon enough.”

He met on Tuesday with a group of civil rights organizations, such as the National Association for the Advancement of Colored People, the Anti-Defamation League and Color of Change. But he didn’t listen.

“All I was hearing was talk and no action,” said Jessica J. González, co-executive officer of Free Press in an interview. Ms. González was on the video call. “Facebook has what I call an appeasement strategy: Tell us what we need to hear, and Facebook can keep doing whatever they like. What they really need is a comprehensive sweep of the site of white supremacists, homophobes, anti-Semites and other hateful groups.”

Facebook’s auditors agreed. They found anti-Muslim speech rampant on the platform and that Facebook directed users to increasingly dangerous posts touting white nationalism. “Facebook has not yet publicly studied or acknowledged the particular ways anti-Muslim bigotry manifests on its platform,” they wrote.

The report also raises concerns about the possibility that the social media site itself is becoming a sort of radicalization engine. “Facebook should do everything in its power to prevent its tools and algorithms from driving people toward self-reinforcing echo chambers of extremism, and that the company must recognize that failure to do so can have dangerous (and life-threatening) real-world consequences.”

Take voting rights, which Mr. Trump has attempted to chip away at in social media posts, including falsely claiming that mail-in ballots lead to increased fraud. While Twitter appended the posts with fact-checking information, Facebook left them up unchanged and unchallenged. “Facebook has been far too reluctant to adopt strong rules to limit misinformation and voter suppression,” according to the report. “With less than five months before a presidential election, it confounds the auditors as to why Facebook has failed to grasp the urgency.” Voters could be forgiven for believing the president, but Facebook has said it’s yet another free speech issue.

Mr. Zuckerberg is either ignoring how the right to free speech works, or he fundamentally misunderstands it. It’s time for him to listen to First Amendment experts: They would tell him that, as a private corporation, Facebook can remove or tag any post it likes.

Maybe then, as his auditors advise, he could finally clear the site of false information about voting, the 2020 census and the coronavirus pandemic.

He should listen when they tell him Facebook’s algorithms too often fail to catch hate speech or too often sweep up posts condemning it.

He should listen to his auditors when they tell him to beef up civil rights and diversity and inclusion efforts. A single vice president of civil rights will be overwhelmed, they said. And they should listen when they tell them Facebook “is too often used as a tool to orchestrate targeted harassment campaigns against users and activists.”

But the overwhelming takeaway from the document titled “Civil Rights Audit Report” is that even when Facebook commits to reforms, it almost never does enough, which the authors called a “seesaw of progress and setbacks.”

Sure, Facebook said on Tuesday that it would make changes based on the audit because, as its chief operating officer, Sheryl Sandberg, said, “it is the right thing to do.” But is Facebook really listening this time?

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