Pressure mounts on Facebook to rein in hate speech

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Facebook came under renewed public scrutiny Wednesday with the release of an independent audit slamming the platform’s progress on civil rights issues, adding to internal and external pressure on the company to rein in hate speech and misinformation.

The audit was the third shoe to drop this month after a group of high-profile advertisers launched a boycott of the site and following a Democratic National Committee memo bashing the company just months before a crucial election.

The independent review of the company’s policies released Wednesday — the third in a set of three commissioned by the social media giant in 2018 — criticized Facebook for failing to develop a mechanism for protecting civil rights and for a hands-off approach when it comes to free speech, even in cases of violent posts.

Outside critics said the findings report shows the company needs to step up and make changes. If it doesn’t, they argued, government intervention would be warranted.

“If Facebook won’t create rules for the platform that protect free elections and public safety, then Congress must intervene to ensure civil rights are protected,” said Rashad Robinson, head of Color of Change. “Our work continues with or without Facebook’s collaboration; we won’t rest until the platform is a safe and just place for Black people.”

Auditors took particular issue with Facebook’s handling of posts from President Trump. One of the posts they highlighted was one from the president in response to protests in Minneapolis over the police killing of George Floyd in which Trump wrote “when the looting shoots, the shooting starts.”

The review said Facebook’s decision to leave such posts untouched has “real world consequences.”

The report acknowledged Facebook has made “some significant improvements in the platform,” but the overall audit was a scathing rebuke.

The report adds to growing pressure on Facebook to tighten its policies against hate speech and misinformation.

Several civil rights groups last month launched an ad boycott campaign called “Stop Hate for Profit,” asking companies to pull their ad dollars from Facebook for the month of July until action is taken on those issues. Hundreds of businesses have joined the campaign.

On Monday, the leaders of those civil rights groups met with Facebook executives including CEO Mark Zuckerberg and COO Sheryl Sandberg for more than an hour. The meeting, organized by Facebook, did little to win over its critics.

“The end of the conversation was the exact same thing that we started with: another dialogue, no action,” Derrick Johnson, CEO and president of the NAACP, said in an interview with The Hill on Monday.

The organizers presented a list of 10 demands aimed at reducing hate on the platform, according to Johnson, including hiring a civil rights expert to a top executive position, submitting to regular audits and creating expert teams to review harassment claims.

Their demands were not met.

Facebook said in a statement after the meeting that it is working to “keep hate off of our platform” and that the civil rights leaders “want Facebook to be free of hate speech and so do we.”

In a separate call Tuesday, executives at Facebook met with other civil rights leaders, including Vanita Gupta of the Leadership Conference on Civil and Human Rights and Sherrilyn Ifill, president of the NAACP Legal Defense and Education Fund.

“The company’s recent announcements have been incremental, rather than the kind of bold action needed to seriously address the harmful impact of voter disinformation and hate speech on the platform,” Gupta and Ifill said in a joint statement. “As long as the platform is weaponized to spread hate and undermine our democracy, a united civil rights community will continue to fight.”

The platform has sought to position the civil rights audit as proof of its commitment to meaningful improvements. Sandberg said Wednesday that having “our shortcomings exposed by experts” has “undoubtedly been a really important process for our company.”

Critics have been quick to point out that Facebook did not adopt recommendations from the previous two audits.

“They have not even adapted the recommendations from the release of the prior audit,” Johnson told The Hill. “What we learned from the prior two audit releases is that the recommendations fall flat.”

Criticism of Facebook has not been confined to civil rights circles.

The Democratic National Committee skewered the company for failing to keep promises in a memo obtained by The Hill.

The memo says the platform has not managed to limit sensational and hyperpartisan content or develop a substantial enough fact-checking team.

“Following the 2016 election, Facebook made a number of public promises of change,” the memo reads. “As the company makes new commitments in response to renewed public criticism, it is worth reviewing carefully how the company’s actions measure up to its words. In many cases, as documented below, Facebook failed to keep its promises.”

The platform’s approach to hate speech has drawn internal ire as well. Last month, dozens of employees staged a digital walkout while others publicly criticized Zuckerberg online.

The fire from all angles has led to some changes, though.

Zuckerberg recently committed to flagging political speech that violates platform policies, a marked shift from the company’s previous approach.

The company also committed to a civil rights position, although not at the C-suite level as requested by the civil rights groups.

However, those changes don’t match the steps taken by other social media companies. Twitter has begun labeling and reducing the spread of Trump’s posts, while Snapchat has stopped promoting the president entirely.

Facebook’s commitment to free expression above all else, a position outlined in a lengthy speech Zuckerberg gave at Georgetown University last year, is likely to draw further criticism, especially as Election Day draws near.

“Elevating free expression is a good thing, but it should apply to everyone,” the auditors wrote in their report.

“When it means that powerful politicians do not have to abide by the same rules that everyone else does, a hierarchy of speech is created that privileges certain voices over less powerful voices,” they added. “The prioritization of free expression over all other values, such as equality and non-discrimination, is deeply troubling to the Auditors.”

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