Report Slams Facebook For 'Vexing And Heartbreaking Decisions' On Free Speech

Jul 8, 2020
Originally published on July 8, 2020 5:19 pm

Updated at 4:50 p.m. ET

Facebook's decisions to put free speech ahead of other values represent "significant setbacks for civil rights," according to an independent audit of the social network's progress in curbing discrimination.

The auditors gave a damning assessment of what they called "vexing and heartbreaking decisions" by Facebook. Among them: Keeping up posts by President Trump that "clearly violated" the company's policies on hate and violent speech and voter suppression; exempting politicians from third-party fact-checking; and being "far too reluctant to adopt strong rules to limit [voting] misinformation and voter suppression."

The report reflects two years of investigation by Laura W. Murphy, a former American Civil Liberties Union executive, and the civil rights law firm Relman Colfax. They were hired by Facebook following widespread accusations that it promotes discrimination by, for example, letting advertisers target users based on race. The auditors examined policies and practices ranging from how the company handles hate speech to its work to stop election interference.

"What has become increasingly clear is that we have a long way to go," Sheryl Sandberg, Facebook's chief operating officer, wrote in a blog post introducing the auditors' report.

"While we won't make every change they call for, we will put more of their proposals into practice," she said.

Sandberg said Facebook would create a new role for a senior vice president dedicated to making sure civil rights considerations informed the company's products, policies and procedures.

The audit echoed complaints that advocacy groups have made for years. Leaders of those groups expressed skepticism over whether Facebook would make meaningful change now.

"The recommendations coming out of the audit are as good as the action that Facebook ends up taking," Rashad Robinson, president of the nonprofit Color of Change, told NPR. "Otherwise, it is a road map without a vehicle and without the resources to move, and that is not useful for any of us."

Vanita Gupta, head of the Leadership Conference on Civil and Human Rights, which along with Color of Change was instrumental in getting Facebook to make the audit public, said advocates would continue to put pressure on the company.

"It is a work in progress clearly, and this report in some ways is a start and not a finish for the civil rights community," Gupta said. "We're going to continue to push really hard using multiple tactics to be able to get done what we need to to preserve our democracy and protect our communities."

The audit comes as hundreds of brands have pledged not to advertise on Facebook this month to protest its laissez-faire approach to harmful posts. Some of the boycott organizers, which include Color of Change, the Anti-Defamation League and the NAACP, held a call with Facebook leaders on Tuesday and hung up disheartened.

"They showed up to the meeting expecting an 'A' for attendance," Robinson said of CEO Mark Zuckerberg and the other Facebook executives in a press conference after the meeting.

Advertising accounted for more than 98% of the company's nearly $70 billion in revenue last year. The boycott campaign's stated goal is "to force Mark Zuckerberg to address the effect that Facebook has had on our society."

Anti-Defamation League CEO Jonathan Greenblatt told NPR the roster of brands that have paused advertising has passed 1,000, including household names such as Hershey, Ford and Levi's.

"[Facebook executives] haven't addressed the concerns of their advertisers. They haven't addressed the concerns of the civil rights community. They haven't addressed the concerns of consumer advocates," Greenblatt said. "If they fail to do so, we will press and we will push. This effort will amplify, this campaign will expand, and more organizations will join."

The audit included further recommendations for how Facebook could build "a long-term civil rights accountability structure," including hiring more members of the civil rights team and making a civil rights executive a part of decisions over whether to remove content.

The auditors said Facebook had made progress in curbing discrimination — for example, by barring advertisers from targeting housing, employment and credit ads based on age, gender or ZIP code and expanding policies against voter suppression and census interference.

But they warned that the company's decisions to prioritize free speech above all else — particularly speech by politicians — risked "obscur[ing]" that progress, especially as the presidential election approaches. They called on Facebook to enforce its policies and hold politicians to the same standards as other users.

"We have grave concerns that the combination of the company's decision to exempt politicians from fact-checking and the precedents set by its recent decisions on President Trump's posts, leaves the door open for the platform to be used by other politicians to interfere with voting," they wrote.

"If politicians are free to mislead people about official voting methods ... and are allowed to use not-so-subtle dog whistles with impunity to incite violence against groups advocating for racial justice, this does not bode well for the hostile voting environment that can be facilitated by Facebook in the United States."

Editor's note: Facebook is among NPR's financial supporters.

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Facebook has made, quote, "vexing and heartbreaking decisions about free speech." That is according to an independent audit into how the social network handles issues such as discrimination, hate speech and election interference. Facebook asked for this investigation two years ago. Today the investigators are slamming the company and its leaders for some of their decisions.

For this week's All Tech Considered, NPR's Shannon Bond joins us. And before we get going, I should mention Facebook is a financial supporter of NPR.

Hey, Shannon.


KELLY: All right, so investigators slamming decisions by leaders of Facebook. What decisions are we talking about?

BOND: Well, this is really about speech, and the most prominent example is President Trump. So recently he's put up Facebook posts falsely claiming that voting by mail is rife with fraud, and he made a really inflammatory post about the recent protests against racism. And the auditors say those posts clearly violated Facebook's own rules against voter suppression and inciting violence, but Facebook didn't take the posts down. The audit also slammed the company's policy of not fact-checking ads by politicians. That's something Facebook has gotten a lot of criticism over.

And overall, the audit says, you know, these decisions are really emblematic of how Facebook has chosen to prioritize free speech above all other values. They say that risks overshadowing gains it has made fighting discrimination. For example, it no longer allows advertisers to target housing and job ads based on age, gender or zip code.

KELLY: What is Facebook saying in response?

BOND: Well, the company, as you said, did ask for this audit. It commissioned it from Laura Murphy, a former ACLU executive in a civil rights law firm. And chief operating officer Sheryl Sandberg said today that Facebook will make some of the changes that it's recommending, including hiring a senior vice president who will make sure civil rights concerns inform decisions on products and policies. But when it comes to setting firmer boundaries on political speech, that's something CEO Mark Zuckerberg has resisted. He says Facebook is committed to free expression, even when politicians make false claims. And Facebook says it won't adopt every recommendation being made in this report.

KELLY: Now, this audit drops as another development plays out. All of these brands - I think we're at more than 1,000 now - pausing their advertisements on Facebook in the name of protesting hate speech. Are any of them - are the organizers of that boycott, are they speaking up today?

BOND: Yep. And what I'm hearing is a lot of skepticism about Facebook. Here's Rashad Robinson. He's president of Color of Change, one of the groups behind the boycott.

RASHAD ROBINSON: The recommendations coming out of the audit are as good as the action that Facebook ends up taking. Otherwise, it is a road map without a vehicle and without the resources to move. And that is not useful for any of us.

BOND: Another boycott organizer I spoke with today is Jonathan Greenblatt of the Anti-Defamation League. He told me he thinks the boycott is just going to keep growing - and remember; it's already gone global - until Facebook takes real action on their demands.

KELLY: Yeah. It sounds like we now have this damning audit, this big boycott, pressure from many directions on Facebook to change its ways.

BOND: That's right. And civil rights groups told me they're not going to ease the pressure on Facebook. I spoke to Vanita Gupta. She's head of the Leadership Conference on Civil and Human Rights, and here's what she had to say about the audit.

VANITA GUPTA: It is a work in progress, clearly, and this report, in some ways, is a start and not a finish for the civil rights community.

BOND: So Gupta and other leaders I spoke to, you know, they say it's just so urgent that Facebook act now because the presidential election is just a few months away. That's something the auditors also say they're really worried about. They say it in the audit. They say if Facebook doesn't get more serious about enforcing its policies, holding politicians to the same standards as other users, that will open the door to more voter suppression, even calls for violence on Facebook.

KELLY: Thank you, Shannon.

BOND: Thanks so much.

KELLY: NPR's Shannon Bond. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.