Civil Rights Groups Denounce Facebook for Hate Speech

(AP) — Facebook keeps telling critics that it is doing everything it can to rid its service of hate, abuse and misinformation — and civil rights groups keep not buying it.

On Tuesday, CEO Mark Zuckerberg and Chief Operating Officer Sheryl Sandberg met with a group of civil rights leaders, including the organizers of a growing advertising boycott over hate speech on Facebook. One of those leaders, NAACP President Derrick Johnson, said Facebook’s executives offered little but cheap talk that skirted major commitments to new rules or actions that would curb racism and misinformation on its platform.

Facebook CEO Mark Zuckerberg. (AP photo)

“We’ve watched the conversation blossom into nothingness,” Johnson said. “They lack the cultural sensitivity to understand that their platform is actually being used to cause harm. Or, they understand the harm their platform is causing and they’ve chosen to take the profit.”

The NAACP was one of several groups that sent Facebook a list of 10 demands for policy change. Those included hiring a civil rights executive; banning private groups that promote white supremacy, vaccine misinformation or violent conspiracy theories; and ending an exemption that allows politicians to post voting misinformation.

Such calls have the support of big-name companies including Coca-Cola and Unilever which have yanked their Facebook ads in recent days. But nothing concrete will change for Facebook’s 2.6 billion users.

In a statement after the meeting, Facebook largely reiterated its policies against voter and census interference, noting some white supremacist groups it has banned and other recent changes.

“This meeting was an opportunity for us to hear from the campaign organizers and reaffirm our commitment to combating hate on our platform,” the statement said. “We know we will be judged by our actions not by our words and are grateful to these groups and many others for their continued engagement.”

Facebook did agree to install a civil rights vice president, but did not say how long that would take, Jessica J. González — the co-CEO of Free Press, a group behind the boycott — told The Associated Press.

President Trump frequently violates Facebook’s posting rules, yet faces no consequences, dismaying civil rights leaders and some of Facebook’s own employees. Trump made several misleading claims about mail-in-voting in May and June posts, including one that pushed a baseless theory that foreign countries plan to print millions of bogus ballots.

Trump used Facebook to threaten violence against racial injustice protesters in Minneapolis when he wrote “when the looting starts, the shooting starts” in a May post.

The posts have gone unchecked on Facebook. Twitter, however, has fact-checked, removed  or obscured some of Trump’s controversial tweets.

“When a politician, no matter who that politician is, when he makes a post that says ‘shoot the looters,’ it is not only racially insensitive, it could incite violence across the country,” Johnson said.

Facebook said in June that it would begin labeling rule-breaking posts — even from politicians. But it is not clear whether Trump’s previous controversial posts would have gotten the label.

On Wednesday, Facebook will release the results of its own “civil rights audit” of its U.S. practices.

The audit was led by former American Civil Liberties Union executive Laura Murphy, who was hired by Facebook in May 2018 to assess its performance on vital social issues.

More than 900 companies have joined the ad boycott, which runs through the end of July, although some companies plan to withhold their ad dollars longer.

In a Facebook post Tuesday, Sandberg mentioned what she called the company’s years of effort to “minimize the presence of hate” on Facebook and the billions of dollars it has spent “to find and remove hate — as well as protect the integrity of our platform more generally.”

Facebook’s 2019 revenue was more than $70 billion, nearly all of it from advertising.

Facebook’s inaction will only encourage companies to continue their boycott of advertising on the site for longer, said Jonathan Greenblatt, CEO of the Anti-Defamation League.

“The list is growing every day,” Greenblatt said of companies joining the boycott. “It’s unfortunate to go back to them and say we haven’t seen the progress we expected.”

However, the two-year audit of Facebook’s civil rights record found “serious setbacks” that have marred its progress on matters such as hate speech, misinformation and bias.

The 100-page report released Wednesday outlines a “seesaw of progress and setbacks” at the company on everything from bias in Facebook’s algorithms to its content moderation, advertising practices and treatment of voter suppression.

The audit recommends that Facebook build a “civil rights infrastructure” into every aspect of the company, as well as a “stronger interpretation” of its voter suppression policies and more concrete action on algorithmic bias. Those suggestions are not binding, and there is no formal system in place to hold Facebook accountable for any of the audit’s findings.

“While the audit process has been meaningful, and has led to some significant improvements in the platform, we have also watched the company make painful decisions over the last nine months with real world consequences that are serious setbacks for civil rights,” the audit report states.

Those include Facebook’s decision to exempt politicians from fact-checking, even when President Trump posted false information about voting by mail. Facebook CEO Mark Zuckerberg has cited a commitment to free speech as a reason for allowing such posts to remain, even though the company has rules in place against voter suppression it could have used to take down — or at least add warning labels to — Trump’s posts.

Facebook said in June that it would begin labeling rule-breaking posts — even from politicians. But the problem, critics have long said, is not so much about Facebook’s rules as how it enforces them.

“When you elevate free expression as your highest value, other values take a back seat,” Murphy told The Associated Press. The politician exemption, she said, “elevates the speech of people who are already powerful and disadvantages people who are not.”

Civil rights leaders who met virtually with Zuckerberg and other Facebook leaders Tuesday expressed skepticism that recommendations from the audit would ever be implemented, noting that past suggestions in previous reports had gone overlooked.

“What we get is recommendations that they end up not implementing,” said Rashad Robinson, the executive director of Color for Change, one of several civil rights nonprofits leading an organized boycott of Facebook advertising.


By BARBARA ORTUTAY and AMANDA SEITZ

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