Facebook on Sunday issued the first major update of 2019 on the progress of its ongoing civil rights audit, spurred more a year ago by a sharp upsurge in criticism over its permissive policies toward hateful and abusive content directed at people of colour and religious minorities. However, many civil rights leaders directly involved in discussions with Facebook say the company has only agreed so far to half-steps unlikely to effect substantive change.
The nearly 30-page document is the result of dozens of meetings in Washington between Facebook’s appointed civil rights ambassador – former ACLU legislative director Laura Murphy, a widely respected advocate in the field – and about 90 prominent civil rights groups, including Muslim Advocates and Color of Change. Many of these groups, with which Facebook has been meeting since May 2018, are members of Change the Terms, a coalition founded to persuade Facebook into taking meaningful and aggressive changes to combat the deluge of racist, extremist content saturating its network of more than 2.3 billion users.
“Facebook’s civil rights audit began in 2018 at the encouragement of the civil rights community and as part of the company’s commitment to advance civil rights on the platform,” Facebook said in a statement. “The audit is intended to create a forum for dialogue between the civil rights community and Facebook with the goal of informing the company’s examination of critical areas of concern.”
However, sources who attended several of the talks with Murphy and other Facebook officials, including the final meeting held on Friday, told Gizmodo that, while crucial milestones had been reached in some areas, the final document achieves little in the way of ensuring that Facebook will adequately address the root causes of its failed moderation policies.
“A real civil rights audit should tell the public exactly where the deficiencies in removing hateful activity and hate content creators have been found and how they can and will be closed. The document released by the company falls far short of that need,” said Henry Fernandez, senior fellow at the Center for American Progress and member of Change the Terms.
Fernandez went on to call Facebook’s progress report “woefully inadequate” and said it failed on several key points: It lacks the transparency civil rights leaders are demanding regarding the rise of hateful activities on Facebook, and further fails to sufficiently describe how the company plans to better equip coders and content moderators going forward, he said.
Murphy offered a starkly contrasting opinion on the work in a statement included in the report, saying it “represents meaningful progress on several issues and a concrete commitment to further improvement.” Facebook understands the need, she said, for a “strong, systemic, cross-functional framework” to address issues like hate speech, algorithmic bias, and election interference, among others.
She touted Facebook’s recent policy updates intended to address posts that incite violence, such as its new prohibition on those that encouraging users to brandish weapons or intimidate and harass others; its civil rights settlement this March aimed at curtailing ads targeting users on the basis of factors like race and gender; and the company’s ongoing efforts to protect users against election interference, the issue that drew the most attention from U.S. lawmakers and is widely credited with spurring the majority of recent changes to the company’s policies.
The report also seeks to outline steps that Facebook intends to take to combating misinformation aimed at impeding participation in the 2020 census, as well voter suppression tactics it readily admits have been used on Facebook and other online platforms. “Getting our policies right is just one part of the solution. We also need to get better at enforcement – both in taking down and leaving up the right content,” Facebook said.
The team of Facebook auditors led by Murphy agree. In a section dedicated to enforcement related to white nationalist content, they wrote that Facebook’s current policy on white nationalism is “too narrow,” as it merely prohibits praise, support, and representation of the terms “white nationalism” or “white separatism.” The policy, they said, fails entirely to address posts espousing white nationalist ideology that are not explicitly labelled as such.
Muslim Advocates, another group involved in the talks, said the report highlights Facebook’s failure to take “meaningful action” against threats of violence by white nationalists. “The murder of 51 Muslims in Christchurch broadcast all over the world on Facebook Live, made it clear that this is a life and death matter – still, the company has yet to take serious action to protect our community,” said Madihha Ahussain, Muslim Advocates’ special counsel for anti-Muslim bigotry.
“Facebook’s announcement that it will convert an ad hoc, interdepartmental collaboration of current staff tasked with addressing civil rights concerns into a permanent configuration will not result in meaningful change,” she said, regarding the announcement that Facebook intends to “institutionalise” its Civil Rights Task Force, which the company says will “onboard civil rights expertise to ensure the effectiveness of its work.”
In an email to Gizmodo, Muslim Advocates said the update confirms prior demands for reforms at Facebook are still necessary, including those – echoing the views of some shareholders – calling on CEO Mark Zuckerberg and COO Sheryl Sandberg to step down from Facebook’s board of directors. “If Facebook has the capability to proactively remove content that violates its policies such as child pornography or ISIS-inspired speech and rhetoric, then it has the capability to remove anti-Muslim and white nationalist content just as aggressively. It is just choosing not to do so,” the group added.
Color of Change, the nation’s largest online racial justice organisation, which was targeted last year by a consulting firm Facebook hired to discredit its top critics, said the report overall fails to establish a proactive enforcement process necessary to combating discrimination. While many of the groups aligned with Change the Terms are focused solely on forcing Facebook to self-regulate, Color of Change said on Sunday that it’s clear only the intervention of government regulators will ensure civil rights become an operational priority at Facebook.
Color of Change President Rashad Robinson, meanwhile, highlighted as a “victory” the commitment by Facebook’s leadership to “[advancing] the standards for all technology companies grappling with issues of safety, harassment, and discrimination.” Addressing discrimination on the platform will nevertheless require a “cultural shift,” added Brandi Collins-Dexter, the group’s senior campaign director.
“‘Will this hurt Black users?’ needs to be just as important a question for every single person at the company as ‘will this make Facebook more money?’ she said.
Above all, Facebook’s own lack of diversity must be addressed, each group said. Jessica González, vice president of strategy and senior counsel at Free Press, noted this problem was not limited to Facebook, but affecting most major social media sites, which contributes, she said, to a “hostile environment” faced by women and people of color online that is not only persisting but “metastasizing at a rapid rate.”
Finally, Keegan Hankes, the interim research director at Southern Poverty Law Center, another Change the Terms partner, said that while the company’s latest efforts deserve notice and appreciation, they remain a far cry from the substantive changes demanded by the coalition.
“Facebook’s so-called audit is simply too heavy on platitudes and not comprehensive enough,” said Hankes. “We cannot move forward to protect targeted groups harmed by activity on the platform unless we have both an unvarnished look at the cesspools of hate and misinformation growing and spreading on Facebook with the company’s detailed plan for action to be taken on an urgent timeline, and this update provided the public with neither.”
Featured image: Thibault Camus / AP