An independent civil rights audit commissioned by Facebook has found that the company’s decision-making process “remains too reactive and piecemeal” to achieve regular, meaningful progress on key issues plaguing the social media platform.
That stuttering approach has impeded Facebook’s own efforts to properly respond to urgent needs, thereby harming both its users and society at large. As a result, organized hate, misinformation, voter suppression and discrimination remain massive problems for Facebook to tackle, among others.
Facebook released the 100-page report, authored by a team of civil rights attorneys and led by former American Civil Liberties Union executive Laura Murphy, on Wednesday.
While auditors applauded the company for a “number of positive and consequential steps,” they warned that progress is being undone by other “vexing and heartbreaking decisions,” effectively setting Facebook on a “seesaw of progress and setbacks.”
One example: failing to act on a series of recent posts by President Donald Trump in which he labeled protesters as “THUGS” and said that “looting” leads to “shooting.” The posts were left up after Facebook CEO Mark Zuckerberg spoke with Trump and claimed, despite evidence to the contrary, that they didn’t incite violence and therefore didn’t violate company rules.
After Facebook’s inaction on the Trump posts, other politicians and businesses ran ads with similar language, advocating that armed vigilante citizens shoot “looters” and “ANTIFA terrorists.” Even though the ads violated the platform’s rules, they weren’t flagged by the company and received more than 200,000 impressions before they were brought to Facebook’s attention and removed.
In addition to carving out problematic exceptions for the president, the report found Facebook is generally “far too reluctant to adopt strong rules to limit misinformation and voter suppression,” effectively “weaponizing” the platform to suppress voting.
“With less than five months before a presidential election,” the report said, “it confounds the auditors as to why Facebook has failed to grasp the urgency.”
“With less than five months before a presidential election, it confounds the Auditors as to why Facebook has failed to grasp the urgency...”
For example, repeated false claims by Trump that mail-in ballots are “substantially fraudulent” are allowed to remain. (By Trump’s surrogates’ own admission, voting by mail can be done “safely and securely.”)
The ballot falsehood also touches on yet another vexing area identified by the audit: Facebook’s decision to exempt politicians from its already lax fact-checking system.
“When ... 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 report cautioned.
Auditors also raised numerous flags about the spread of hate speech on the platform, particularly white nationalism. A study by a watchdog group released in May found such groups are “thriving” on the website.
The Facebook audit urged the company to go beyond banning only explicit references to white separatism “to also prohibit express praise, support and representation of white separatism and white nationalism even where the terms themselves are not used.”
“The prioritization of free expression over all other values, such as equality and non-discrimination, is deeply troubling,” the report said.
Facebook’s own algorithm exacerbates the problem, the audit found, by “pushing people toward extreme and divisive content,” with efforts to make the site less divisive reportedly deliberately shut down by top leadership.
Facebook is not “sufficiently attuned to the depth of concern on the issue of polarization and the way that the algorithms used by Facebook inadvertently fuel extreme and polarizing content,” the report warns.
The report’s release comes amid a large and growing boycott of Facebook by advertisers who are wary of the harmful content their ads appear alongside. As of Wednesday, more than 1,000 companies had signed on, including big names like Coca-Cola, Pepsi, Starbucks, Unilever, and Verizon (HuffPost’s parent company).
Zuckerberg and his deputies have been dismissive of the boycott. Last week, he vowed not to change company policies “because of a threat to a small percent of our revenue” and predicted advertisers “will be back on the platform soon enough.”
While Facebook has said it will not bow to the demands of others, the audit ― perhaps conveniently for the company ― comes to similar conclusions as those reached by its numerous detractors.
“I don’t think there’s a big window” for action, Murphy, the lead author of the report, told CNN. “I think people are very concerned about domestic actors using the platform to interfere with our elections and to spread misinformation.”