Technology

Facebook under fire from civil rights groups

Facebook is scrambling to reassure civil rights groups after reports prepared for Congress detailed how a Russian troll farm used its platform to try and suppress black voter turnout in the 2016 elections.

The company released a long-promised update on an internal civil rights audit Tuesday as the NAACP called for a boycott of the social network and black lawmakers demanded answers from Facebook's leaders.

"We know we need to do more," Facebook COO Sheryl Sandburg wrote in a blog post. "The civil rights audit is deeply important to me, and it's one of my top priorities for 2019. I'm committed to overseeing its progress and making sure that it is a well-resourced, cross-company effort."

The latest controversy for Facebook comes after the Senate Intelligence Committee, which is investigating Russia's influence operations in the 2016 election, released two reports Monday from digital researchers detailing the social media disinformation campaigns.

In addition to accusing Facebook, Google and Twitter of impeding the Senate's Russia probe, one of the reports - prepared by the research firm New Knowledge - said ongoing efforts from the Russian Internet Research Agency (IRA) have emphasized the targeting of black voters.

"The most prolific IRA efforts on Facebook and Instagram specifically targeted Black American communities and appear to have been focused on developing Black audiences and recruiting Black Americans as assets," the report said.

Those efforts included trying to persuade black people not to vote or to cast ballots for a third-party candidate in an effort to swing the 2016 vote to President Trump.

The revelations sparked an uproar and added to the mounting concerns rights groups have about Facebook.

The NAACP call for users to log out of Facebook and its other platforms for a week attracted prominent supporters, including comedian Amy Schumer.

"Our hope is this boycott will charge Facebook to do a better job of protecting & supporting communities of color online," Rep. Bennie Thompson (D-Miss.), the incoming chairman of the House Homeland Security Committee, tweeted.

The NAACP also joined the Southern Poverty Law Center and other groups on Tuesday in demanding that CEO Mark Zuckerberg step down from his other role as chairman of Facebook's board in order to allow for better oversight of the company.

The groups cited a New York Times report last month that detailed how the company was initially reluctant to tackle Russia's use of its platform to target U.S. voters and later used a public affairs firm to attack civil rights groups who advocated for changes at Facebook.

"In the face of clear evidence that Facebook was being used to broadcast viral propaganda and inspire deadly bigoted campaigns, the company's leadership consistently either looked the other way, or actively worked to lobby against meaningful regulation, shifted public opinion against its allies, and personally attacked its critics," the groups wrote in a letter to Zuckerberg on Tuesday.

Facebook will also need to answer to black lawmakers, who are demanding to hear from Zuckerberg about the Russian efforts to suppress the African-American vote.

"This campaign of disinformation is extremely disconcerting because black voter turnout declined in 2016 - for the first time in 20 years," the Congressional Black Caucus (CBC), which counts 48 lawmakers in its ranks, said in a joint statement on Monday.

"The CBC would also like to hear directly from Mark Zuckerberg at Facebook, and CEOs of other companies whose platforms were weaponized, about what they knew, and concrete steps they will implement to address future attempts at disinformation campaigns."

When asked to respond, a Facebook spokesperson sidestepped questions about the company's leadership, instead noting that they are working to address recent "security incidents and privacy missteps."

"We understand the areas of concern that the NAACP and other civil rights groups have raised with us and we are grateful for their feedback. We're listening and we agree that we have areas that we can improve," the spokesperson said in a statement to The Hill on Tuesday.

"We have been working on our civil rights audit since May to address some of the other critiques from the NAACP and other civil rights organizations, and we will continue that work and provide periodic updates until the audit is complete."

The update to the civil rights audit that was released on Tuesday highlighted a number of issues that activists have long been pushing Facebook to improve upon, including efforts to combat voter suppression, removing tools that enable advertisers to discriminate among groups and improved content moderation.

The audit also said that in 2019 Facebook plans to work on creating a "civil rights accountability infrastructure," the details of which would be worked out in consultation with civil rights groups.

Facebook has made efforts in the past to address the concerns of lawmakers and civil rights groups. In 2017, Sandberg sat down with CBC members about improving diversity and promised that Facebook would add an African-American to its board of directors.

The civil rights audit, though, is unlikely to ease the pressure the company is facing. Some of Facebook's critics said the report was too little, too late and vowed to ensure the company follows through.

Facebook had promised to release the update before the end of the year after meeting with the civil rights group Color of Change. Last month's New York Times story revealed the group had been targeted by Definers Public Affairs, a political consulting firm Facebook hired to hit back at critics of the company. Definers had pushed the notion to journalists that the liberal financier George Soros was behind Color of Change and other groups critical of Facebook.

In a statement on Tuesday, the group said it was pleased that Facebook had met its commitment to release the update.

"However, Black users, employees, and communities have demanded real solutions and changes to their platform for years," the statement said. "This report is long on excuses and short on meaningful progress.

"It is not enough to merely identify the many challenges that we have explained to Facebook," the group added.

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