Facebook’s latest update on its ongoing companywide civil rights audit has been criticized by activists who say that the social network needs to do much more to tackle hate on its platform.
In its update, released Sunday, Facebook describes its efforts to prevent harmful content circulating on the social network, fight discrimination in Facebook Ads, protect the 2020 Census and Elections against intimidation, and formalize the company’s ‘Civil Rights Task Force’.
Activists, however, say that the tech giant’s efforts are inadequate. The Change the Terms coalition, which aims to reduce hate online, has been working with Facebook to develop a civil rights accountability structure. In a statement, the group said that the audit represents “important steps, not significant strides” by Facebook.
“We cannot rely on Facebook to tell us whether the changes they are making to address hateful activity on their platform protect their diverse users,” said Henry Fernandez, senior fellow at the Center for American Progress and member of Change the Terms. “In this audit, the company commits to improvements consistent with Change the Terms’ recommendations in some key areas, including moving responsibility for addressing hateful activities to senior management and tackling teams of trolls and bots pushing hate in the election context. But, we still need much broader transparency so independent researchers can look at data and answer whether these changes make a difference.”
Fernandez added that Facebook needs to do much, much more in its battle to combat hate on the social network. “Given the tragic mass killings at the mosques in Christchurch livestreamed on Facebook Live, we hoped Facebook would go much further, much faster,” he explained. “Yet Facebook remains turtle slow to change. They need to move now to build a diverse team of experts with real authority to oversee ending hate on their platform to get it moving. Relying primarily on monthly meetings of executives and a couple of outside consultants with civil rights expertise is a step forward but insufficient.”
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Civil rights advocates have long complained that the social network has been harnessed for hate speech, harassment campaigns, voter suppression and disinformation and racially biased housing and credit advertisements.
Muslim Advocates, one of several major civil rights organizations demanding board level leadership changes at the Menlo Park, Calif. company, described the company’s approach as “perfunctory half-steps.”
“Instead of building a permanent, board and staff-level civil rights infrastructure with the expertise needed to address this crisis, Facebook has chosen to take perfunctory half-steps all while anti-Muslim bigots and white nationalists continue to use the company’s platforms to organize and spread hatred and bigotry,” said Madihha Ahussain, Muslim Advocates special counsel for anti-Muslim discrimination, in a statement emailed to Fox News. “The audit process will not be successful if Facebook does not take seriously and implement the audit team’s recommendations for improving content moderation.”
With its audit, Facebook wants to reflect the values of America’s civil rights tradition.
After years of consistent pressure from outside advocacy groups like Color of Change, the company opted to set a new course. Facebook embarked one year ago on the civil rights audit of its policies and practices led by Laura Murphy, a civil rights advocate who was the American Civil Liberties Union’s top lobbyist on Capitol Hill for 17 years and worked with Democrats and Republicans.
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“We want to make sure we’re advancing civil rights on our platform,” Facebook COO Sheryl Sandberg said in a statement. “Over the past year, I’ve had the privilege of meeting with many key leaders and our conversations have been humbling and invaluable.”
Murphy, with the assistance of civil rights law firm Relman, Dane and Colfax, and with the support of Sandberg, undertook meetings with 90 civil rights organizations and interviewed people who handle product, policy and enforcement at the tech giant as part of the audit.
“Facebook has been through a storm in the last couple of years,” Murphy told Fox News in an interview two days before the report’s release. “They’re taking this seriously.”
While the first update focused mostly on the Mark Zuckerberg-led company’s election efforts in the second half of last year, the latest update focuses on content moderation and enforcement; advertising targeting practices; elections and census; and a civil rights accountability structure. Here’s what changes the auditors recommend and what Facebook has planned policy-wise.
Content Moderation and Enforcement
Hate speech is probably the hardest problem to solve when you operate at Facebook’s scale. Factors like country of origin, language, nuance and context can be challenging for humans to parse out, let alone algorithms.
In addition to the tech giant’s already announced ban against white nationalism and white separatism, the audit report makes several specific recommendations. First, Facebook has now updated its events policy to ban posts from people who intend to bring weapons to events with the intent to intimidate or harass members of minority groups or vulnerable people.
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Second, the report recommends that Facebook ban content that supports white nationalist ideology even if the terms “white nationalism” and “white separatism” are not explicitly used. The company will be working to identify hate slogans and symbols connected to these movements in order to enforce the policy.
Although the auditors mention Facebook’s broader crackdown on “dangerous individuals and organizations” that amplify hate, they also note that some people and groups have been able to circumvent the new bans and persist on the platform with ease.
In a widely circulated USA Today article earlier this year, Facebook was slammed by frustrated black users who were banned from the social network after they called out hate speech or spoke against racism on the platform.
As one way to address this, Facebook is piloting a program in the U.S. to have a portion of its 15,000-plus content moderators focus only on hate speech — instead of misrepresentation, bullying, nudity, etc. — as a way to develop deeper expertise and more accurate enforcement over time.
Even so, with 2.3 billion monthly active users across the world adding millions of posts, videos, photos and memes every hour, completely solving hate speech is like trying to drink from a raging firehose.
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“I don’t know that you could ever hire enough people to get it right. And I don’t think the algorithms are close to capturing what constitutes hate speech,” Murphy said, adding that this is a challenge for other Big Tech firms as well.
Civil Rights Accountability Structure
The biggest demand from Color of Change and other racial justice organizations has been to get Facebook — whether through a leadership or board governance change — to apply a civil rights lens with all of its products, services and policies and create a permanent structure within the company to address these issues.
The tech giant has created a Civil Rights Task Force, that will be chaired by Sandberg and made up of senior leaders, which will onboard civil rights expertise to make sure key areas around content policy, voting and elections are addressed. It will serve as an executive body where employees, as well as outside groups, can “escalate civil rights questions or issues” to leaders and decision-makers, according to the audit update. In addition, the task force will be empowered to impact contemplated products and policies that might raise civil rights concerns at an early stage.
Facebook is also holding civil rights training for all senior leaders on the task force and for key employees on the product and policy side.
“I believe that this is a start. This is in no way the end of the conversation on a civil rights accountability infrastructure,” Murphy, who was first woman and first African-American to direct the ACLU’s Washington legislative office, told Fox News during an interview. “I think it is important that you hold senior management to account.”
Murphy also said that civil rights organizations would likely question whether the task force is enough in terms of accountability and structure, but noted that she sees it as a starting point.
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Elections and 2020 Census
According to Murphy, Facebook wants to make sure that the core functions of democracy — including voting and the census — are respected and not attacked.
In order to do that, the tech company is unveiling a range of policy updates and new initiatives that include protections against voter interference; a new policy prohibiting “don’t vote” ads; efforts to address so-called racial appeals, which the audit update defines as “explicit or implicit efforts to appeal to one’s racial identity and/or use race to motivate someone to vote for or against a given candidate; more proactive detection of voter suppression; combatting “coordinated information operations” by sophisticated bad actors.
Facebook will also launch a “war room” for the 2020 elections in the U.S., similar to the one it piloted for the 2018 midterms, to bring key employees together as an added security measure to address any outbreaks of voter intimidation, voter suppression and hate speech in the lead up to and during the elections.
Whether these efforts—the auditors will issue a third and final update early next year—end up having a long-lasting impact remains to be seen. As regulators in the United States and overseas are zeroing in on Facebook and Silicon Valley generally, the company can at least say it’s trying to improve in this area.
“I don’t think it’s any small thing for a company to say ‘we want to embrace civil rights laws and principles across our platform,’” said Murphy. “I don’t know how many other companies are going that. There’s movement but I think there’s a ways to go.”
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Neil Potts, Facebook’s director of public policy, said he remains hopeful about the changes he’s seen and those yet to come in the pursuit of advancing civil rights on the ubiquitous platform.
“I’ve noticed a shift in the company from the top. Sheryl’s been very, very hands-on. I have seen that trickle down to various other areas—policy, products and enforcement,” Potts told Fox News during an interview before the report’s release. “Based off of Sheryl’s leadership, the leadership of Laura and her team, the feedback that we’ve received from the community—people get this now and we’re going to make sure we instill this throughout the company.”
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Activist group Color of Change described the audit update as an “important step forward,” but added that Facebook now has to deliver on its civil rights promises. “This victory is the result of a collaborative, long-term strategy to hold Facebook accountable to all of its users, including people of color, and a strong partnership with Laura Murphy and promising commitment from Sheryl Sandberg,” Rashad Robinson, president of Color of Change, told Fox News in a statement. “The updated audit is an important step forward, but the broader impact for our 1.5 million members and all black Facebook users will depend on the company’s commitment to enforcement and transparency of policies developed by this promised civil rights infrastructure to protect all Facebook users from harm.”
Fox News’ James Rogers contributed to this article.