Pressure Intensifies on Facebook After Meeting With Civil Rights Groups and Audit

Jessica J. González of Free Press called the gathering 'a PR exercise'

the facebook logo in a spotlight
Facebook released its full independent civil rights audit this week. Photo illustration: Amira Lin; Source: Facebook, Getty Images

The heat on Facebook over its failures to address widespread issues related to civil rights and hate speech on its platform shows no signs of cooling.

Civil rights groups, brands and marketing experts are still critical of the platform after findings of a 2-year-long independent civil rights audit released today showed that the social network has a lot more work to do.

On Tuesday, in an effort to head off the Stop Hate for Profit campaign asking advertisers to boycott Facebook, executives including CEO Mark Zuckerberg and chief operating officer Sheryl Sandberg met with representatives from four civil rights and industry groups behind the effort: the Anti-Defamation League, Color of Change, Free Press and the NAACP.

“They want Facebook to be free of hate speech, and so do we,” Facebook policy communications director Andy Stone said in a statement. “We know we will be judged by our actions, not by our words, and we are grateful to these groups and many others for their continued engagement.”

However, Facebook executives used “the same old talking points” that made the meeting feel like “nothing more than a PR exercise,” according to a statement by Free Press co-CEO Jessica J. González.

“I was hoping to see deep humility and reflection about the outsized role that Facebook plays in shaping beliefs, opinions and behavior, and the many harms it’s caused and facilitated in real life,” González said.

Facebook also released the findings of the independent civil rights audit, conducted by civil liberties experts and lawyers Laura W. Murphy and Megan Cacace, who’s a partner in the civil rights law firm Relman Colfax.

In an online post, Sandberg acknowledged that the report was released as Facebook itself has faced “heavy criticism” over “hateful content on our platform.”

“While the audit was planned, and most of it carried out, long before recent events, its release couldn’t come at a more important time,” Sandberg said.

In the introduction to the 89-page report, Murphy addressed both accomplishments and shortcomings by the platform, writing that auditors “watched the company make painful decisions over the last nine months with real-world consequences that are serious setbacks for civil rights.”

She offered several examples of progress, highlighted by Facebook’s settlement of an Equal Opportunity Employment Commission complaint filed in September 2018 regarding unlawful discrimination by advertisers promoting housing, employment or credit opportunities, and the changes Facebook made as a result.

Murphy also applauded the social network’s efforts to combat voter suppression and interference with the 2020 Census in the U.S.

She acknowledged the company’s commitments to hiring a vp-level executive to focus on civil rights and creating a Civil Rights Task Force made up of senior leadership across multiple verticals, although a timeline was not given. “These commitments must be approached with urgency,” she wrote.

Murphy also pointed to:

“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,”  Murphy wrote. “Unfortunately, in our view, Facebook’s approach to civil rights remains too reactive and piecemeal.”

Overall, other “gains” by the platform could be overshadowed “by the vexing and heartbreaking decisions Facebook has made that represent significant setbacks for civil rights.”

Areas that need work, according to Murphy, include:

  • A stronger interpretation of voter-suppression policies
  • More visible and consistent prioritization of civil rights in overall decision-making
  • More resources devoted to combating hate against Muslims, Jews and other targeted groups
  • Banning praise, support and representation of white separatism and white nationalism
  • Further addressing algorithmic bias

Murphy also said auditors were “deeply troubled” by Facebook’s decision to not remove posts from President Donald Trump that made false claims about mail-in voting and appeared to promote violence against protesters.

“[It] ignores how such statements—especially when made by those in power and targeted toward an identifiable, minority community—condone vigilantism and legitimize violence against that community,” Murphy wrote.

Others pointed to the audit as exposing “Facebook’s vulnerabilities,” according to a statement by the Leadership Conference on Civil and Human Rights.

“This audit has laid bare what we already know: Facebook is a platform plagued by civil rights shortcomings. Facebook has an enormous impact on our civil rights by facilitating hate speech and violence, voter and census disinformation and algorithmic bias, and by shortchanging diversity and inclusion,” the group said in a statement. David Cohen is editor of Adweek's Social Pro Daily.