Facebook has repeatedly failed the civil rights community and had a "deeply troubling" response to the ongoing problem of President Trump's posts, according to a final report from a two-year-long civil rights audit.
The prepublication report arrives just a day after a seemingly disastrous meeting between CEO Mark Zuckerberg, COO Sheryl Sandberg, and three civil rights groups that have been leading a major boycott of the platform by advertisers. And it confirms what racial justice and civil rights advocates have been saying for years about the company's seeming inability to enforce its own policies against hate speech and discrimination.
The report concludes two years of auditing of the company's policies and actions as they relate to civil rights issues. The audit was led by civil rights advocate Laura Murphy and a team from the law firm Relman Colfax PLLC, led by partner Megan Cacace.
As CNN reports, the auditors say that decisions made by Zuck and his team over the last year "represent significant setbacks for civil rights," including the decision not to label or remove posts by President Trump that contain lies and misinformation. The report authors say the company was "far too reluctant to adopt strong rules to limit misinformation and voter suppression," particularly where these concerned the president's posts.
Mark Zuckerberg was cheered by Trump fans and conservatives last fall when he took a firm stand in favor of "free speech" and allowing politicians — but mostly Trump — to spread lies on the platform. It was up to voters, Zuckerberg insisted, to decide who to believe.
Then came Trump's late May statements about mail-in ballots being mostly fraudulent — which Twitter took the step of burying behind a fact-check warning but Facebook left alone, despite a clearly stated policy about misinformation that suppresses voting. And then there was Trump's statement, days later, cross-posted to Twitter and Facebook, saying, "when the looting starts, the shooting starts." Trump was expressing outrage over civil unrest and protests in Minneapolis, but the incitement of violence was yet another example of Facebook ignoring its own policies while Twitter hid the post behind a warning.
"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," the auditors write. "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."
Zuckerberg's decision not to label or censor Trump's incitement of violence led directly to a virtual walk-out by Facebook employees on June 1, and spiraled directly into the ad boycott that took shape over the next two weeks.
The auditors point to Facebook privileging the speech of politicians over that of ordinary citizens in its unevenly enforced policies. "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," they write.
And then there's the revelation of recent weeks that Facebook groups — specifically those aligned with the loosely organized Boogaloo movement — were the source of radicalization and real-world violence that erupted here in the Bay Area.
"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," the auditors write.
As Greg Bensinger writes in a New York Times opinion piece today, Zuckerberg "is either ignoring how the right to free speech works, or he fundamentally misunderstands it." And as a private company, Facebook is fully within its rights to remove whatever content it likes — it has just chosen the paths of least resistance due to the logistical difficulties of policing its vast, global platform. And due to the fact that politicians like Trump enjoy stirring up controversy on the right about bias against "conservative speech," which oh so often is also thinly coded, hateful, racist speech.
In response to the audit and to demands by civil rights groups, Facebook has pledged to create a new executive role, a senior vice president of civil rights leadership, that will report directly to Sandberg.
And as the Times reports, Sandberg issued a tepid statement Wednesday in response to the audit, saying, "What has become increasingly clear is that we have a long way to go. As hard as it has been to have our shortcomings exposed by experts, it has undoubtedly been a really important process for our company."