The buck stops with Zuckerberg for Facebook's civil rights shortcomings says...Facebook's own audit report

Profile picture for user Stuart Lauchlan and Jerry Bowles By Stuart Lauchlan and Jerry Bowles July 8, 2020
A meeting between Facebook management and civil rights campaigners was little more than a PR exercise, but a damning audit report does at least place blame firmly where it belongs - at the feet of Mark Zuckerberg himself.

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They showed up to the meeting expecting an A for attendance.

A damning assessment of the outcome of a long-awaited meeting between Facebook’s leadership team, including CEO Mark Zuckerberg, and activists from the #StopHateForProfit ad boycott campaign launched in protest at the social media giant’s lack of action over hate speech and ‘Fake News’ on its platform

The campaign has seen some of the world’s biggest brands suspending advertising with Facebook - and other social media providers - in the wake of the killing at the hands of the police of George Floyd last month.

For its part, Facebook has continued to insist that it won’t be pressured into changing its policies as a result, but agreed to meet with leaders of the boycott, including representatives from the likes of ACLU, the NAACP and Color of Change.

But if anyone had any expectations that Facebook intended to give way to a list of 10 demands for new policies to police content on its platform, they were to be predictably disappointed. Given that Zuckerberg was widely cited last week as assuring Facebook employees that the ad boycott would soon pass and the harsh reality of how little the combined spend of the big brands contributes to overall revenues (around 6%), that was never a credible hope. 

And indeed in a lengthy self-serving blogpost - Making Progress On Civil RIghts - But Still a Long Way to Go - Facebook COO Sheryl Sandberg set out the company’s stall one more time in case anyone had missed the approved party line:

Facebook stands firmly against hate. 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. We have clear policies against hate - and we strive constantly to get better and faster at enforcing them. We have made real progress over the years, but this work is never finished and we know what a big responsibility Facebook has to get better at finding and removing hateful content.

Damned by its own report

The meeting coincided with the publication of a scathing independent audit of Facebook’s civil rights policies and practices, conducted by former ACLU official and civil rights veterans Laura W. Murphy and Megan Cacace. Facebook commissioned the review itself in May 2018 in the wake of a US Congressional (light) grilling of Zuckerberg following the Cambridge Analytica  scandal.  But the resulting 89 page report notably pulls no punches in placing the blame for Facebook’s misguided defense of “free expression” firmly at the feet of Zuckerberg himself. 

In particular, it cites Zuckerberg’s refusal to hold feet to the fire by exempting politicians from fact-checking on the basis that their content should be regarded as newsworthy, regardless of accuracy, unless outweighed by a risk of harm. That basically gives politicos free rein to make divisive and - particularly dangerous in an election year - voter-suppressive statements and assertions.

The report points to Zuckerberg’s speech last year at Georgetown University where he cited free expression as a governing principle of Facebook as a platform

In my view as a civil liberties and civil rights expert, Mark elevated a selective view of free expression as Facebook’s most cherished value. Although the speech gave a nod to 'voting as voice' and spoke about the ways that Facebook empowers the average user, Mark used part of the speech to double down on the company’s treatment of politicians’ speech. The Auditors have expressed significant concern about the company’s steadfast commitment since Mark’s October 2019 Georgetown speech to protect a particular definition of free expression, even where that has meant allowing harmful and divisive rhetoric that amplifies hate speech and threatens civil rights. Elevating free expression is a good thing, but it should apply to everyone.

The report’s authors add: 

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. The prioritization of free expression over all other values, such as equality and non-discrimination, is deeply troubling to the Auditors...Facebook has no qualms about reining in speech by the proponents of the anti-vaccination movement, or limiting misinformation about COVID -19, but when it comes to voting, Facebook has been far too reluctant to adopt strong rules to limit misinformation and voter suppression. 

While acknowledging that Facebook has built a robust mechanism to actively root out foreign actors running co-ordinated campaigns to interfere with US democratic processes, the report warns that the firm has failed to control those “who seek to use misinformation to sow confusion and suppress voting,” adding that:

With only months left before a major election, this is deeply troublesome as mis-information, sowing racial division and calls for violence near elections can do great damage to our democracy.

It voices concern at Facebook's reluctance to take action on posts from President Donald Trump in May in which he called mail-in ballots “fraudulent”, which the auditors say was harmful false information that 'facilitated voter suppression’:

Persons seeing the President’s posts would be encouraged to question whether they would be doing something illegal or fraudulent by using the state’s ballots to exercise their right to vote…Facebook has made policy and enforcement choices that leave our election exposed to interference by the President and others who seek to use misinformation to sow confusion and suppress voting,

On whether Facebook can harmonize the tension between civil rights and free expression, the report warns:

For a 21st century American corporation, and for Facebook, a social media company that has so much influence over our daily lives, the lack of clarity about the relationship between those two values is devastating. It will require hard balancing, but that kind of balancing of rights and interests has been part of the American dialogue since its founding and there is no reason that Facebook cannot harmonize those values, if it really wants to do so.


For her part, Sandberg used her blog post to highlight some tweaks to Facebook’s practices that she claimed showed the firm is serious about facing up to its responsibilities.

For example, she said the firm has toughened up voter suppression policies since the 2016 and 2018 elections to prohibit threats that voting will result in law enforcement consequences and attempts at co-ordinated interference, both of which have been known to intimidate and deter voters. All posts about voting, including those from politicians, now include a link that directs people to the Facebook Voting Information Center, where they can get accurate, real-time information about voting processes in their districts. 

She argued that the company has extended the voting protections to the US 2020 census by adopting a robust interference policy and insisted that the firm has gone above and beyond existing hate speech protections to ban ads that are divisive and include fear-mongering statements.

She also noted that Facebook has committed to build a more diverse and inclusive workforce, by bringing on 30% more People of Color, including 30% more Black people, in leadership positions, a pledge backed up by hard cash:

We announced a $100 million investment in Black-owned small businesses, Black creators and nonprofits that serve the Black community in the US, and a commitment to spend at least $100 million with Black-owned businesses, toward a goal of $1 billion in annual spend with diverse suppliers by the end of 2021.

My take

All of this is gesture politics with a petty cash price tag for Facebook. It also falls well short of meeting the demands of #StopHateForProfit. As the campaign noted  in a statement after the meeting with Zuckerberg and his team:

Facebook wants us to accept the same old rhetoric, re-packaged as a fresh response.

Or as the auditors report puts it:

In our view Facebook's approach to civil rights remains too reactive and piecemeal.

That approach continued yesterday with the high-profile removal of 50 personal and professional pages connected to Trump’s longtime adviser Roger Stone and his associates, including his Stone Cold Truth Facebook page which boasted 141,000 followers, as well as accounts related to  employees of the family of Brazilian leader Jair Bolsonaro.

Such removals allow Facebook tick a few more boxes and be seen to be taking action, but do little or nothing to tackle the systemic failures inherent in the firm’s out-of-balance stance on the competing tensions between civil rights and freedom of expression. 

Facebook’s own audit report points out that all roads lead to the unsackable Zuckerberg here. He is the chief architect of Facebook’s toxic culture. PR exercises like yesterday’s token meeting with campaigners do nothing to alter that reality or tackle the real problem that needs to be dealt with.