Civil rights groups demand changes to Facebook's political speech policy

Civil rights groups demand changes to Facebook's political speech policy
© Greg Nash

A coalition of civil rights groups are demanding that Facebook overhaul its political speech policy, according to a letter obtained by The Hill Thursday.

The letter, dated Friday, followed up on a meeting between Mark ZuckerbergMark Elliot ZuckerbergTech finds surprise ally in Trump amid high-stakes tax fight FTC rules Cambridge Analytica engaged in 'deceptive practices' with Facebook data mining Hillicon Valley: Trump officials propose retaliatory tariffs over French digital tax | FBI classifies FaceApp as threat | Twitter revamps policies to comply with privacy laws | Zuckerberg defends political ads policy MORE and the leaders of the groups — including the NAACP, the NAACP Legal Defense Fund, Color of Change and the National Action Network — at the Facebook CEO’s home earlier this month.

The organizations, which also include Muslim Advocates, UnidosUS and the National Urban League, are asking for a response from Facebook by Nov. 25.

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Among the requests made in the letter is putting “guardrails on the newsworthiness exemption,” referring to Facebook’s community guideline allowing content from political figures to stay up even if it breaks some of the social media platform’s policies.

“As we made clear in our discussion, politicians are, and historically have been, key perpetrators of rhetoric that incites racial, religious, and anti-immigrant violence and voter suppression in our nation,” the groups wrote.

“The politician exemption and newsworthiness exemption are deeply connected to issues of voter and census suppression and should be reformed accordingly.”

The civil rights groups also called on Facebook to subject political ads to third-party fact-checking.

Facebook has come under intense scrutiny for its policy, launched in October, not to fact-check or block advertisements from politicians over false or misleading claims. The social media giant has defended the policy, saying it is not the place of private companies to police political speech.

The groups asked that posts found to contain such claims be demoted to “reduce the virality of misinformation.”

Facebook has carved out exceptions in its blanket political speech policy for content inciting violence or voter suppression. The groups demanded that the exceptions be defined more clearly to “reflect real world harms.”

They also needled Facebook for allowing political ads to be narrowly targeted to population subgroups.

“All constituents have a right to know their representative’s views,” they wrote. “Politicians and candidates should not be allowed to send different messages to different populations within their constituency without any transparency that such messaging is occurring.”

The civil rights groups called for increased transparency on ad targeting, including information about the intended audience.

Finally, the letter demands Facebook put more effort in fighting hateful activities on the platform.

“This is a matter of life and death for our communities. We urge you to adopt a zero-tolerance policy for hate actors’ use of the event pages to dehumanize our communities,” the groups wrote.

“We know that you are working on algorithmic detection models, but more needs to be done.”

A spokesperson for Facebook told The Hill that the company received the letter and is in contact with the groups.

“We appreciate the input given from these prominent civil rights leaders and want to continue this dialogue," they said. "We’ve received their letter and are in direct touch with the Leadership Conference on Civil and Human Rights.”

Facebook on Wednesday announced that it had pulled down 7 million posts over the past three months for violating its policies against hate speech.

The company’s latest transparency report goes into granular detail about what posts are removed, something the civil rights groups also called for in the letter.

Facebook, the world’s largest social media platform with more than 2.4 billion users, has increasingly come under fire from progressive organizations.

Several groups are in the process of forming the Campaign to Regulate and Break Up Big Tech, The Hill first reported this month.

The groups are concerned that Facebook has bent too much to conservative claims of right-wing censorship, to the detriment of progressive groups.

Facebook has maintained that it is a nonpartisan vehicle for speech.

Updated at 12:53 p.m.