Facebook's Sheryl Sandberg Hears Concerns Of Civil Rights Leaders But Offers No Promises

A diverse group of civil rights leaders sat down in Atlanta in the U.S. on Friday for a town hall attended by Facebook officials, including Chief Operating Officer Sheryl Sandberg, to discuss the matter of hateful content, racist threats and misinformation that continue to plague the platform.

Sandberg was invited to the town hall by Colour of Change, the largest online racial justice organisation in the U.S., and Change the Terms, a coalition of more than 50 American civil rights organisations that, in dozens of meetings with Facebook officials over the past year, have pressed the company to adopt its recommendations for stronger policies against hate — with a particular eye on white supremacist content.

Sources inside the meeting told Gizmodo that Facebook made no promises on Thursday and that its officials rarely offered answers to the civil rights leaders’ questions. Near the end of the event, Sandberg promised to “keep listening.”

“People in our communities are dying at the hands of white supremacy — the stakes are that high,” said Jessica J. González, co-founder of Change the Terms and vice president of strategy at Free Press, who attended the event. “Now that Facebook has heard some of our stories and calls for change, there can be no doubt about the path forward: We at Change the Terms urge them to adopt all of our policy recommendations. The safety of users must be a priority on the platform.”

González said the Facebook assumed mostly a “listening posture” throughout the town hall, hearing concerns about — among a litany of other pressing issues — a lack of transparency around how changes in its enforcement policies are being carried out. In late March, Facebook instituted a policy barring “praise, support and representation of white nationalism and white separatism,” for example. It has also made some strides to update the methods by which hateful content is analysed and reviewed.

González added that data scientists she’s met with are eager to analyse how the changes are impacting the platform, but finding it impossible to do so; something they attribute to a lack of participation by Facebook.

Free Press, the digital and consumer advocacy group, issued a report ahead of the meeting on Thursday morning titled Facebook vs. Hate. The report examined how Facebook’s policies have evolved since October 2018 when the Change the Terms coalition was launched. Facebook officials have sat down with members of coalition dozens of times over the last year, Gizmodo was told.

While the report acknowledges that Facebook has dedicated considerable resources toward addressing hate on its platform, it nevertheless finds that enforcement of its policies remains “lacklustre.”

“Facebook still struggles to enforce its policies, and it has intentionally built flexibility into its Community Standards on hate speech,” the report states. “This flexibility allows hateful activities to thrive when they don’t technically ‘cross the line.’”

“Though Facebook conducts a trusted-flagger program, which fast tracks review and highlights content flags by vetted organisations and individuals, it’s not clear how effective it is,” the report adds.

Facebook did not immediately respond to a request for comment.

The civil rights leaders also pressed Sandberg on enhancing the training of its moderators, to include cultural competency. One leader cited the harrowing report published this February by the Verge that detailed the serious mental health issues that notoriously plague Facebook’s army of moderators, whose job involves exposing themselves to an onslaught of hate speech, violent images, and graphic pornography.

They also expressed dismay over Facebook’s announcement this week that it wouldn’t seek to block any content posted by politicians that violate its hate-speech rules, and that politicians’ posts would not be subject to any fact-checking. Facebook’s critics say they’ve essentially given politicians free rein to engage in disinformation campaigns aimed at swaying the results of the 2020 election.

“Facebook should get rid of this embarrassing policy which allows millions of elected officials around the world to engage in the most vile of speech on Facebook’s platforms,” said Henry Fernandez, a senior fellow at the Centre for American Progress. He noted, in particular, a raise in hate-speech against Latinos that he says has been encouraged by the White House.

“At this civil rights town hall we have heard repeatedly that this is a mistake that puts people of colour and religious minorities in danger,” he said.

“This year, the Latinx community has been targeted and murdered in mass violence events orchestrated and promoted by white supremacists on social media platforms like Facebook.” said Daiquiri Ryan, a policy counsel at the National Hispanic Media Coalition. “When hate infiltrates, invades and spreads online, we lose yet another safe space for people of colour to authentically tell their stories, participate in the digital economy, and engage in political discourse.”

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