Facebook should not be a meeting ground for America’s most racist

Facebook should not be a meeting ground for America’s most racist
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Playing golf. Waiting in line. Cooking. Driving, or traveling. Sleeping. These seemingly innocuous activities can lead to racial profiling, arrest or even death, if you happen to be black in America. Racial tensions in this country have crept so high in recent years that, similar to what occurred at the height of the civil rights movement, Russians have utilized this flaw to sow discord and division in our nation. Facebook is their weapon of choice.  

On Wednesday, Cambridge Analytica whistleblower Christopher Wylie told Congress that President TrumpDonald John TrumpJustice Department preparing for Mueller report as soon as next week: reports Smollett lawyers declare 'Empire' star innocent Pelosi asks members to support resolution against emergency declaration MORE’s 2016 presidential campaign targeted the black community for suppression and “voter disengagement.” We should be shocked if not for the fact that former Breitbart News executive Steve BannonStephen (Steve) Kevin BannonPat Caddell leaves an indelible mark on the American political landscape Former Carter pollster, Bannon ally Patrick Caddell dies at 68 In next election against populists, centrist forces already making mistakes MORE served on Cambridge Analytica’s board prior to joining the Trump campaign. A tree cannot escape its roots.

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Last week, Democrats on the House Intelligence Committee published roughly 3,500 Facebook ads sponsored by Russians, more than half of which made express references to race. The ads varied in nature, some leaning to the left and others to the right of the political spectrum. Many of these racial references reinforced harmful stereotypes about people of color. Designed solely to stoke animosity between groups, the ads portrayed African Americans as violent. They implied that Muslims were terrorists, and that immigrants were invaders.

 

And, as though to add salt to another bleeding wound, some ads focused on how badly the police treat African Americans, while others encouraged blind support of law enforcement.

No matter how far right or left the ads leaned, it was clear their main focus was to exploit implicit and explicit biases in the hearts of so many Americans. It is this sort of bias that makes #LivingWhileBlack — the hashtag to raise awareness of racial profiling incidents — so dangerous. Such bias apparently led to the shooting of a 14-year-old black boy asking for directions on his way to school in Detroit; caused police to arrest two black men waiting for a meeting in a Philadelphia Starbucks; and caused a black woman’s assault by police at a Waffle House in Alabama.

The list can go on and on, but the point remains the same — Americans have made a terrible habit of acting on bias, and Facebook is a breeding ground that too often fosters its growth.

On any given day, Facebook is flooded with copious amounts of hate speech, much of it directed at people of color. In fact, in 2016, when these Russian ads ran on Facebook, hate groups and hate speech on social media platforms amassed more likes than any year since 2008. These hate groups thrive on Twitter, where an anti-immigrant group will garner about 17,000 followers, on average. With the hurtful rhetoric often spewed from the @realDonaldTrump handle, which has 52 million followers, millions of Americans are at the mercy of the president’s words and millions more take it upon themselves to expound upon his tweets.

Any like, re-share or comment given to hate speech boosts its engagement, making it more likely for people to see and agree with. What’s worse, Facebook allows harmful and offensive speech to flourish but incorrectly flags other forms of expression as unsafe. By taking this New York Times quiz, one can find examples of just what Facebook considers hate speech and what it does not. According to this, “Poor black people should still sit at the back of the bus,” is not a statement that Facebook considers harmful.

While today’s technology does not allow Facebook to block hate speech as expeditiously as it should, the tech giant can do more to release the burden of reporting hate speech from its users and devote more personnel resources to dousing hate groups and hateful content. This includes being mindful of ads Facebook allows on its network. No dollar amount is worth the dignity the Russians stole from the 2016 presidential election by way of online propaganda.

Facebook already imposes restrictions on what people can say on its network, some of which need tightening; it should impose even stricter limitations on advertising to ensure its users aren’t attacked based on race, gender, religion, ethnicity or sexual orientation. If Facebook’s primary goal is to connect people across the world, it must ensure that those connections are positive.

Derrick Johnson is the president and CEO of the NAACP, America’s largest civil rights organization. Follow him on Twitter @DerrickNAACP.