Face­book au­dit warns of Trump, voter sup­pres­sion

USA TODAY International Edition - - MONEY - Jes­sica Guynn

A report re­leased Wed­nes­day by civil rights au­di­tors warns that Face­book’s fail­ure to rein in toxic speech, racism and mis­in­for­ma­tion could have se­ri­ous reper­cus­sions on the pres­i­den­tial elec­tion and may even sup­press voter turnout.

The report, the re­sult of a years- long in­ter­nal civil rights au­dit of Face­book’s poli­cies and prac­tices, took par­tic­u­lar ex­cep­tion with the com­pany’s de­ci­sion not to take down inflam­ma­tory rhetoric and false claims from Pres­i­dent Don­ald Trump.

“The pri­or­i­ti­za­tion of free ex­pres­sion over all other val­ues, such as equal­ity and non- dis­crim­i­na­tion, is deeply trou­bling,” civil rights ac­tivist Laura Mur­phy wrote in the au­dit, which be­gan in 2018 at the urg­ing of civil rights or­ga­ni­za­tions and some mem­bers of Congress.

The report, pre­pared with the civil rights law firm Rel­man Col­fax, calls for Face­book to more rig­or­ously and con­sis­tently en­force its voter sup­pres­sion poli­cies and to bring in an ex­pe­ri­enced civil rights ex­ec­u­tive to guide poli­cies and vet prod­ucts, steps the au­di­tors say are long over­due. Face­book said Tues­day that it’s in the process of hir­ing a civil rights vice pres­i­dent who will report to the com­pany’s chief le­gal officer.

Crit­i­cism of the com­pany has in­ten­sified since na­tion­wide protests over the death of George Floyd brought the is­sue of racial jus­tice to the fore­front.

Face­book main­tains it is mak­ing strides in iden­ti­fy­ing and re­mov­ing mis­in­for­ma­tion and other harm­ful and di­vi­sive con­tent.

“This au­dit has been a deep anal­y­sis of how we can strengthen and ad­vance civil rights at ev­ery level of our com­pany,” Face­book’s Chief Op­er­at­ing Officer Sh­eryl Sand­berg wrote in a Face­book post Wed­nes­day. “We have a long way to go – but we are mak­ing progress.”

On Tues­day, an hour­long meet­ing held by Face­book CEO Mark Zucker­berg

and key ex­ec­u­tives with civil rights groups did lit­tle to quiet crit­i­cism.

Mur­phy told USA TO­DAY that more pres­sure should be brought to bear on Face­book.

“We have to do more to con­vince Face­book’s lead­er­ship of all the ways that peo­ple will try to weaponize the plat­form to sup­press vot­ing,” Mur­phy said in an in­ter­view. “We have to con­tinue to push and to in­sist that they do a bet­ter job of pro­tect­ing vot­ing.”

The pre­vail­ing fear among dozens of civil rights or­ga­ni­za­tions and hun­dreds of ad­vo­cates con­sulted by au­di­tors, that Face­book will re­peat the mis­takes of the 2016 pres­i­den­tial elec­tion when Black Amer­i­cans and other mi­nori­ties were tar­geted by Rus­sian op­er­a­tives look­ing to sow racial di­vi­sion and plant dis­in­for­ma­tion. Only this time, they fear, the ef­forts to sup­press turnout will not come from abroad.

“In 2016, the prob­lem was very clearly for­eign ac­tors, and in 2020, the prob­lem is do­mes­tic ac­tors,” Mur­phy said. “Face­book has enough poli­cies to han­dle do­mes­tic ac­tors but the au­di­tors don’t agree with the way that they’ve in­ter­preted those poli­cies and that’s what’s giv­ing us heart­burn.”

Zucker­berg has de­fended his hand­soff ap­proach to politi­cians and Trump, em­pha­siz­ing Face­book’s com­mit­ment to free speech.

At is­sue are Face­book posts by Trump, two of which made in­ac­cu­rate state­ments about mail- in bal­lots in the Novem­ber elec­tion, ac­cord­ing to the au­dit. The third ap­peared to threaten violence against Black Lives Mat­ter pro­test­ers, which Mur­phy com­pared to putting a match to a tin­der box.

“We are in a very tricky mo­ment and any­thing that in­cites violence has to be taken very se­ri­ously,” she said.

Though Face­book has cracked down on the anti- vac­ci­na­tion move­ment and on COVID- 19 mis­in­for­ma­tion, the fail­ure to re­move these posts “ex­posed a ma­jor hole in Face­book’s un­der­stand­ing and ap­pli­ca­tion of civil rights,” the au­dit found.

When pow­er­ful politi­cians don’t have to abide by the same rules as other Face­book users, “a hi­er­ar­chy of speech is cre­ated that priv­i­leges cer­tain voices over less pow­er­ful voices,” Mur­phy wrote.

Jes­sica J. González, co- founder of Change the Terms, called on Face­book to take ac­tion.

“Face­book pol­icy and enforcemen­t will­fully ig­nores and even en­ables the prob­lem of hate mon­gers on the plat­form, in­clud­ing 100 ac­tive white su­prem­a­cists. There should not be a ‘ final’ civil rights au­dit when hate and elec­tion mis­in­for­ma­tion con­tinue en­dan­ger­ing our lives and democ­racy,” González said in a state­ment. “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.”

Hun­dreds of com­pa­nies, in­clud­ing Unilever, Ford and Pfizer, pulled ad­ver­tis­ing from Face­book to protest the spread of racial ha­tred, white supremacy and vi­o­lent threats on Face­book and

In­sta­gram. The boy­cott or­ga­nized by civil rights lead­ers known as # StopHateFo­rProfit fol­lowed a vir­tual “walk­out” by Face­book em­ploy­ees last month.

“I think that the lead­er­ship of the com­pany re­al­izes the con­cern about those posts is not dy­ing down, and so I’m hop­ing there’s change but I don’t have a crys­tal ball,” Mur­phy said.

Face­book de­clined to say whether Zucker­berg would al­ter its poli­cies. He re­cently agreed to la­bel posts from politi­cians that vi­o­late Face­book’s rules. Mur­phy told USA TO­DAY that she wants Face­book to con­sider free ex­pres­sion “in a way that is balanced by civil rights con­cerns.”

“I do think that Mark has got­ten more memos on civil rights and has had more meet­ings with civil rights lead­ers in the last cou­ple of months than ever be­fore,” Mur­phy said. “You can’t be in this mo­ment in our his­tory and not hear what peo­ple are say­ing about the thirst for equal­ity and due process and fair­ness and jus­tice.”

While Face­book has made gains in crack­ing down on dis­crim­i­na­tory tar­get­ing of hous­ing, em­ploy­ment, credit ad­ver­tis­ing and on cen­sus mis­in­for­ma­tion, Mur­phy said, the au­dit makes other rec­om­men­da­tions:

i De­vote more re­sources to study­ing how hate and ha­rass­ment tar­get marginal­ized com­mu­ni­ties and com­mit to ban­ning all ref­er­ences to white na­tion­al­ism and sep­a­ratism, not just ex­plicit ones.

i Build a di­verse, in­clu­sive work­force and cul­ture to im­prove how de­ci­sions are made about prod­ucts and poli­cies

i Take more con­crete ac­tion and make specific com­mit­ments to addressing al­go­rith­mic bias or dis­crim­i­na­tion.

Face­book CEO Mark Zucker­berg tes­tifies be­fore a House com­mit­tee in 2018. JACK GRU­BER/ USA TO­DAY


The au­dit of Face­book re­veals con­cerns about tweets by Pres­i­dent Don­ald Trump, in­clud­ing that ap­pears to threaten violence against those in­volved in the Black Lives Mat­ter move­ment. USA TO­DAY

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