Sheryl Sandberg Says Facebook Needs to Do More to Protect Civil Rights

Company released update to ongoing audit as NAACP called for boycott

In a post introducing the results of the audit, Sandberg said that Facebook was taking the Senate reports “incredibly seriously.” Getty Images
Headshot of Kelsey Sutton

A day after the Senate Select Committee on Intelligence released two reports showing how Russian trolls targeted black Americans on Facebook and Instagram, Facebook COO Sheryl Sandberg released an update to an ongoing civil rights audit and said that the company was “committed” to addressing issues of discrimination and election interference on the platform.

Facebook enlisted Laura Murphy, a private consultant who spent more than two decades at the American Civil Liberties Union, to complete the audit in May. In a post introducing the results of the audit, Sandberg said that Facebook was taking the Senate reports “incredibly seriously.”

“We know that we need to do more: to listen, look deeper and take action to respect fundamental rights,” Sandberg wrote.

Murphy’s report detailed some of the changes Facebook has made to the platform in response, like voter registration initiatives and updates making it easier for users to report false voting information on the platform. The audit also highlighted Facebook’s so-called election “war room,” an initiative aimed to address false election information on the platform, which Facebook aggressively promoted as evidence of its commitment to fixing some of its problems. The report also highlighted that, in response to reports illustrating how Facebook’s ad campaigns can be used to place discriminatory spots, Facebook has taken steps like removing certain targeting terms.

Still, Murphy said, the company had more to do. Going into 2019, the company plans to address content moderation on the platform and create an infrastructure positioning civil rights issues at the forefront of any platform changes, the audit read.

The update comes amid an already tough week for Facebook at the tail end of a brutal year, marked by data breaches, the Cambridge Analytica scandal and deepening scrutiny over its business practices. On Monday, lawmakers released the aforementioned reports illustrating how Russian trolls leveraged platforms like Facebook and Instagram to target black Americans, including attempts to recruit activists and discourage voting. The reports also found that the Russian-linked Internet Research Agency was sharing disinformation on Facebook and Instagram at even higher rates than before the 2016 presidential election.

The information contained in those reports prompted the NAACP to call for a week-long digital boycott of Facebook, Instagram and WhatsApp. Called #LogOutFacebook, the boycott began on Tuesday and highlighted several issues the NAACP said were concerning, including the company’s work with an opposition research firm to cast doubt on its critics.

“Facebook’s engagement with partisan firms, its targeting of political opponents, the spread of misinformation and the utilization of Facebook for propaganda promoting disingenuous portrayals of the African-American community is reprehensible,” Derrick Johnson, the president and CEO of the NAACP, said in a statement about the boycott.

The NAACP has also returned a donation it received from Facebook and is calling on additional Congressional investigations, the organization said.

In an emailed statement, a Facebook spokesperson said the company has “acknowledged and apologized” for its past “security incidents and privacy missteps”:

“We understand the areas of concern that the NAACP and other civil rights groups have raised with us and we are grateful for their feedback. We’re listening and we agree that we have areas that we can improve.

We have acknowledged and apologized for the security incidents and privacy missteps we’ve had in the past, and we continue to invest in solutions to keep our platform safe and improve. For example, we’ve put in more than three dozen privacy controls, created a privacy governance team, and ensured that our privacy program managers collaborate closely with our products team. We’ve also doubled the team that works on security from 10,000 to 20,000.”

@kelseymsutton Kelsey Sutton is the streaming editor at Adweek, where she covers the business of streaming television.