20 state AGs call on Facebook to take greater steps to combat hate speech, online harassment

Greg Nash

Twenty state attorneys general are calling for Facebook to take a series of steps to more proactively combat disinformation and hate speech, becoming the latest group to demand the tech giant take firmer action against incendiary content on its platform.

The state officials on Wednesday sent a letter to Facebook CEO Mark Zuckerberg and Chief Operating Officer Sheryl Sandberg stating that the company has “fallen short” on a range of issues, including rooting out online harassment, discrimination and misinformation.

They urged the company to more “aggressively enforce” its policies against hate speech and hate organizations, allow public third-party audits of hate content and enforcement, and to expand its policies on advertisements that vilify minority groups. 

“With the vast resources at your disposal, we believe there is much more that you can do to prevent the use of Facebook as a vehicle for misinformation and discrimination, and to prevent your users from being victimized by harassment and intimidation on your platforms,” the attorneys general wrote.

The letter was spearheaded by New Jersey Attorney General Gurbir Grewal (D), who successfully pushed Facebook earlier this year to take down a page that he said was spreading “racist and anti-Semitic statements.” The letter’s signatories included the Democratic attorneys general of California; Wisconsin; Iowa; Washington, D.C., and Hawaii.

“Facebook clearly has a hate, discrimination and disinformation problem,” Grewal said in a phone interview with The Hill, adding that it’s having “real-life public safety consequences.”

Grewal said that bias and anti-Semitism incidents are on the rise in his state, attributing the increase at least in part to social media platforms.

“Hate speech is an issue across the internet and we are working to make Facebook as safe as possible by investing billions to keep hate off our platform and fight misinformation,” Facebook spokesperson Daniel Roberts told The Hill. “We share the Attorneys General’s goal of ensuring people feel safe on the internet and look forward to continuing our work with them.”

In recent months, Facebook has faced scrutiny from civil rights groups, lawmakers and some of its own employees over its policies on hate speech. The company’s decision to leave up inflammatory posts from President Trump about protests following the police killing of George Floyd helped trigger much of the outrage, as critics claimed that the company wasn’t doing enough to counter abusive content.

A coalition of civil rights groups in June launched the “Stop Hate for Profit” campaign as part of an effort to compel Facebook to confront the issue more aggressively. More than 1,000 companies signed on to the campaign and pulled their advertising from the platform in July.

The state attorneys general echoed some of the demands of the campaign, including laying out a set of requests focused on online harassment and intimidation.They asked the company to implement measures giving victims of harassment more immediate assistance. The letter also urged Facebook to permit an independent analysis of its algorithms and what role they play in spreading noxious content.

While the attorneys general gave Facebook credit for having policies on several of these items, they argued that the experiences of many showed that much more could be done. 

Grewal cited his own experience, noting that he began pushing Facebook in 2019 to remove a page on the platform after several citizens reported complaints to his office. It highlighted the lack of real-time services for victims of online harassment and intimidation, Grewal said. 

“We are at a reckoning when it comes to issues of race and hate. It’s my hope in the wake of this national moment, they will respond to us,” he added. “[I hope] they finally see the issue for what it is, which is a real public safety crisis when it comes to issue of race and discrimination [and] that they can be part of the solution instead of feeding more of this extremist content.”

In the face of criticism, Facebook executives have repeatedly stressed that it does not profit off hate speech. On an earnings call last week, Zuckerberg said the company’s AI systems remove 90 percent of the extremist content that appears on the platform before anyone reports it, saying that no other company has “anything remotely as sophisticated as this.”

He also noted that Facebook was opening itself up to audits on its community standards enforcement and content monetization policies.

The company in early July publicly released its first civil rights audit, which found that it wasn’t devoting enough resources to tackle problems associated with hate and discrimination on its platform. The report concluded that Facebook was making progress in some respects, but that it had made some “painful decisions” in the last year, including leaving up a post from Trump in which he said, “when the looting starts, the shooting starts,” in reference to protesters in Minneapolis. 

Tags Attorneys general Donald Trump Facebook Gurbir Grewal Mark Zuckerberg online hate speech Social media
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