Facebook finds itself dragged into border controversy

Facebook finds itself dragged into border controversy
© Getty Images

Facebook is being dragged into the scandal surrounding a secret group of border patrol agents who shared racist and sexist content on its platform targeting migrants and several members of Congress, including Rep. Alexandria Ocasio-CortezAlexandria Ocasio-CortezOvernight Health Care: Global coronavirus cases top 1M | Cities across country in danger of becoming new hotspots | Trump to recommend certain Americans wear masks | Record 6.6M file jobless claims Trump blasts Schumer over 'incorrect sound bites' on coronavirus Trump warns against 'partisan investigations' after Pelosi establishes select committee on virus response MORE (D-N.Y.).

Democrats are demanding that Facebook hand over posts from the group and enforce its community standards against the members.


Rep. Elijah CummingsElijah Eugene CummingsMaryland postpones primary over coronavirus fears Maryland governor: 'Simply not enough supplies' on hand to tackle coronavirus Meadows joins White House facing reelection challenges MORE (D-Md.), the chairman of the House Oversight and Reform Committee, wrote to Facebook CEO Mark ZuckerbergMark Elliot ZuckerbergHillicon Valley: Trump, telecom executives talk coronavirus response | Pelosi pushes funding for mail-in voting | New York AG wants probe into firing of Amazon worker | Marriott hit by another massive breach As misinformation surges, coronavirus poses AI challenge Zuckerberg, Gates team up to contribute M for research into coronavirus treatments MORE on Tuesday requesting that the company preserve the records from the group and turn them over to the committee ahead of a hearing with the heads of Customs and Border Protection (CBP) and the Department of Homeland Security (DHS).

The controversy comes as Facebook already faces heat over a variety of issues, including a video edited to falsely suggest Speaker Nancy PelosiNancy PelosiTrump says he opposes mail-in voting for November On The Money: Economy sheds 701K jobs in March | Why unemployment checks could take weeks | Confusion surrounds 9B in small-business loans The bipartisan neutering of the Congressional Budget Office MORE (D-Calif.) was drunkenly slurring her speech, and threatens to overshadow the company's efforts to crack down on hate speech. 

The news broke a day after Facebook touted a progress update on its civil rights audit, a project aimed at addressing criticism from minority groups over how it handles hate speech. 

Madihha Ahussain, a lawyer with the group Muslim Advocates, said the recurring issue of hate speech on both the platform’s public and private spaces is emblematic of institutional problems at Facebook.

“This is not just about Facebook, it's obviously a much bigger problem. It just felt so raw that we're seeing this literally the day after they released their audit report,” Ahussain said of the secret CBP group in a phone interview with The Hill.

The firestorm is also putting Facebook in a harsh light amid a pivot to change its business focus to creating a more private platform, an effort which puts a greater emphasis on groups. 

“We want everyone using Facebook to feel safe,” Facebook spokesman Andy Stone said in a statement to The Hill. “Our Community Standards apply across Facebook, including in secret groups. We’re cooperating with federal authorities in their investigation."

Stone would not say whether Facebook plans to comply with the Oversight and Reform Committee's request or if the secret group violated its standards against hate speech.


The demand from lawmakers creates a new headache for Facebook as it now must decide whether to hand over private information about its users to the government. If it doesn’t, critics will likely question the company’s commitment to tackling hate speech, a problem that has plagued the platform and is one of many issues prompting scrutiny from governments around the world.

The details of the secret Facebook group emerged from a report by the nonprofit news outlet ProPublica at a time when Democratic lawmakers are pushing for greater scrutiny of CBP’s treatment of migrants. And it coincided with reports of the conditions faced by detained migrants.

The DHS Inspector General’s Office issued a report this week detailing overcrowding in the agency’s detention centers along with shocking sanitary conditions.

The ProPublica report revealed that CBP agents had used their secret group, called “I’m 10-15” after the agency’s code for having a migrant in custody, to share offensive content that may violate Facebook’s content policies and CBP’s conduct standards.

Screenshots shared with ProPublica showed that group members joked about dead migrants and made lewd and racist comments about Ocasio-Cortez and other Hispanic lawmakers.

“Reporting this week highlighted disturbing & inexcusable social media activity that allegedly includes active Border Patrol personnel. These statements are completely unacceptable, especially if made by those sworn to uphold the @DHSgov mission, our values & standards of conduct,” acting Homeland Security Secretary Kevin McAleenan said on Twitter on Wednesday morning.

Facebook on Sunday released a progress report on a long-running civil rights audit.

Sheryl Sandberg, Facebook’s chief operating officer, said in a blog post that it showed there is much more work to be done and that the company would be convening a task force to tackle civil rights issues.

“We know these are the first steps to developing long-term accountability,” Sandberg wrote. “We plan on making further changes to build a culture that explicitly protects and promotes civil rights on Facebook.”

But the progress report fell short for many rights groups that had been pushing the company to make significant changes to both the platform and its corporate structure.

Muslim Advocates on Wednesday called for Zuckerberg and Sandberg to step down from their seats on the company’s board of directors in order to allow for better oversight. Ahussain said their dual roles insulate the executives from checks on their authority and that the board lacks “the diversity that is representative of Facebook's global users.”

“This type of behavior and speech is found all over the platform,” she said. “The reality is we see so much more work to be done and they're falling so short of addressing these problems.”