Facebook had the chance to curb voter suppression targeting Black Americans ahead of the 2020 presidential election. Instead, it stumbled on that and other civil liberties issues, according to a new independent civil rights audit released on Wednesday.
The audit, commissioned by Facebook and conducted over two years by civil rights experts and lawyers, comes as Facebook faces public ire for racism and disinformation on the site, with major advertisers cutting ties with the company. Although the social media giant took some steps to curb hate speech and prevent election meddling after the 2016 election, it also committed significant oversights, the auditors found.
“This report outlines a number of positive and consequential steps that the company has taken,” the auditors wrote, “but at this point in history, the Auditors are concerned that those gains could be obscured by the vexing and heartbreaking decisions Facebook has made that represent significant setbacks for civil rights.”
The release of the report comes one day after a disastrous meeting with civil rights leaders to discuss issues raised in the audit. Those leaders criticized Facebook as trotting out “the same old talking points to try to placate us without meeting our demands.”
In the report released Wednesday, auditors cited Facebook’s apparent reluctance to curb hate speech or to take action against politicians who violated site rules. Although Facebook has defended some of its stances as necessary for free expression, the auditors argued that unequal enforcement of site rules meant “a hierarchy of speech is created that privileges certain voices over less powerful voices.”
The auditors said they had raised concerns in July 2019 that “domestic political forces” could use the site to suppress minority—particularly Black—votes. (Russian trolls engaged in similar tactics ahead of the 2016 election, buying targeted ads that discouraged voter participation in critical Black voting districts.) The auditors highlighted Facebook’s decision to exempt politicians from its fact-checking program.
“The civil rights community was deeply dismayed and fearful of the impact of these decisions on our democratic processes, especially their effect on marginalized communities,” the auditors wrote. “In their view, Facebook gave the powerful more freedom on the platform to make false, voter-suppressive and divisive statements than the average user.”
Social media companies have struggled with how to address disinformation from politicians, particularly as President Donald Trump repeatedly uses his internet presence to post content that might otherwise violate websites’ rules. Twitter recently unveiled a policy of flagging some of Trump’s tweets when they violated terms of service, but not removing the tweets.
Facebook CEO Mark Zuckerberg appeared to waffle on the policy early last month, after President Donald Trump authored a violent post about protesters, stating that “when the looting starts, the shooting starts.” Zuckerberg initially defended Facebook’s inaction against the post, even as his own employees walked out or resigned over the decision. Late last month, after a massive advertiser protest, Zuckerberg announced that Facebook would prohibit hate speech in advertisements, although that policy would not appear to target Trump’s post.
Jessica González, co-CEO of the civil rights group Free Press, said the report indicated a lackluster response from Facebook.
“Facebook policy and enforcement willfully ignores and even enables the problem of hate mongers on the platform, including 100 active white supremacists,” González said in a statement. “There should not be a ‘final’ civil rights audit when hate and election misinformation continue endangering our lives and democracy. Mark Zuckerberg cannot lead Facebook to stop hateful activity from spreading when he is unable to acknowledge how far behind Facebook truly is when it comes to protecting people of color from the danger the platform continues to pose to our lives.”
It’s a sentiment other civil rights groups shared. The group Muslim Advocates pointed to rampant anti-Muslim activity on the site. (Facebook was used to livestream the massacre of 51 Muslims in a New Zealand mosque last year, and has been cited as a major contributor to the genocide of Muslims in countries like Myanmar.)
“This audit lays bare the many ways Facebook has shamefully harmed Muslims and other vulnerable communities, but even more shameful is the company’s refusal to do anything meaningful to stop this pain and violence,” Muslim Advocates said in a statement, calling on Facebook to hire experts on anti-Muslim bigotry, and to make a policy banning discriminatory events.
In an extensive statement on Wednesday morning, Facebook COO Sheryl Sandberg acknowledged that Facebook had fallen short on hiring in-house civil rights experts and preventing voter suppression. She announced Facebook’s commitment to hire a more diverse workforce and invest in Black-owned businesses. She did not indicate a plan to address some of the auditors’ suggestions, like fact-checking political speech.
“Facebook stands firmly against hate,” Sandberg wrote. “Being a platform where everyone can make their voice heard is core to our mission, but that doesn’t mean it’s acceptable for people to spread hate. It’s not.”