Facebook has caused ‘serious setbacks’ for civil rights, report finds

Facebook made “vexing and heartbreaking” decisions over the past nine months that constituted “serious setbacks for civil rights”, according to a damning report into the company’s practices published on Wednesday.

The audit, which was commissioned by the social media platform, involved a two-year investigation led by civil rights leader Laura Murphy and Megan Cacace from law firm Relman Colfax, and looked at the way the company handled a range of issues from content moderation to diversity.

The report found Facebook’s approach to civil rights to be “too reactive and piecemeal”, adding that auditors had “vigorously advocated for more and would have liked to see the company go further to address civil rights concerns in a host of areas”.

In particular, it said that Facebook had not invested enough in tackling hate speech against groups such as Muslims and Jews, and had failed to adequately address voter suppression and concerns about algorithmic bias.

“While the audit process has been meaningful . . . we have also watched the company make painful decisions over the last nine months with real-world consequences that are serious setbacks for civil rights,” it added, citing, among other things, Facebook’s decision to allow controversial posts by US President Donald Trump to remain on the platform.

The findings come as Facebook battles a snowballing advertiser boycott over its perceived failure to tackle hate speech and racism on its platform, with about 1,000 brands — including Unilever, Ford and Pfizer — agreeing to pull ad spending for the month of July at least.

Facebook has announced several small policy changes since the boycott, which has been spearheaded by civil rights groups such as Color of Change and the Anti-Defamation League, began to gather steam. But campaigners were angered further last week after reports that chief executive Mark Zuckerberg had told employees that “all these advertisers will be back on the platform soon enough”.

The boycott was spurred in part by Facebook’s decision to allow a post from Mr Trump that said “when the looting starts, the shooting starts” to remain on the platform. Twitter, by contrast, added a warning label to the post for glorifying violence.

Facebook’s decision was singled out as “damaging” in Wednesday’s review, with auditors noting that “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”.

Separately, the report also found that Facebook was not “sufficiently attuned to . . . the way that the algorithms used by Facebook inadvertently fuel extreme and polarising content”.

Sheryl Sandberg, chief operating officer at Facebook, said in a blog post that it was ‘increasingly clear . . .  that we have a long way to go’ © Mark Kauzlarich/Bloomberg

In a blog post, Facebook’s chief operating officer Sheryl Sandberg said that auditors had been “extremely candid with their feedback”, and that it was “increasingly clear . . . that we have a long way to go”. 

She highlighted calls for Facebook to “enhance” the team and the process it has in place to deal with civil rights-related issues, as well as its approach to posts from Mr Trump and decision to allow misleading political advertising to remain unchecked on the platform.

“In the auditors’ view, the emphasis we’ve placed on free expression has not been adequately balanced by the critical value of non-discrimination,” she said, adding that “we won’t make every change they call for [but] we will put more of their proposals into practice”.

Meanwhile, on Tuesday, the civil rights activists running the boycott criticised Facebook following a virtual meeting with Mr Zuckerberg, Ms Sandberg and chief product officer Chris Cox for not responding to their demands — which include calls for an end to the amplification of hate groups and refunds to advertisers whose ads are placed next to hateful content. 

Jonathan Greenblatt, chief executive of the ADL, told reporters they had got “no details, no clarity and no result” out of the meeting, while Rashad Robinson, the president of Color of Change, said the meeting was a “disappointment”.