Facebook civil rights audit finds ‘serious setbacks’

Greg Nash

Facebook has made decisions in the last year that signal a “significant setback for civil rights,” according to an independent audit of the platform released Wednesday.

In the 89-page report, the final of three commissioned in 2018, Facebook was commended for making some progress since the beginning of the review, but auditors said the company has still not moved fast enough or devoted enough resources to deal with civil rights issues.

“In our view, Facebook has made notable progress in some areas, but it has not yet devoted enough resources or moved with sufficient speed to tackle the multitude of civil rights challenges that are before it,” the auditors wrote.

The report outlined “painful decisions over the last nine months with real world consequences,” including leaving up a post from President Trump with the phrase “when the looting shoots, the shooting starts,” in response to protests in Minneapolis over the police killing of George Floyd.

“After the company publicly left up the looting and shooting post, more than five political and merchandise ads have run on Facebook sending the same dangerous message that ‘looters’ and ‘Antifa terrorists’ can or should be shot by armed citizens,” the auditors wrote.

“The Auditors do not believe that Facebook is sufficiently attuned to the depth of concern on the issue of polarization and the way that the algorithms used by Facebook inadvertently fuel extreme and polarizing content.”

The company’s hands-off approach to political content has met internal and external pressure in recent months, including a virtual employee walkout and an ad boycott.

The report calls on Facebook to develop a more robust civil rights infrastructure and be more consistent about the platform’s commitment to civil rights mandates.

In a blog post on the audit report, Facebook COO Sheryl Sandberg called it “the beginning of the journey, not the end.”

“As hard as it has been to have our shortcomings exposed by experts, it has undoubtedly been a really important process for our company,” she wrote. “We would urge companies in our industry and beyond to do the same.”

Sandberg and Facebook CEO Mark Zuckerberg were among those that met with civil rights group leaders on Tuesday. The groups described the meeting as a disappointment and said they did not expect Facebook to commit to whatever recommendations the civil rights audit presented.

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