Dinner At Zuckerberg's Leave Civil Rights Organisers 'Cautiously Hopeful'

Facebook CEO Mark Zuckerberg speaks about “News Tab” at the Paley Centre, Friday, Oct. 25, 2019 in New York. (Photo: Mark Lennihan / AP)

After seven years of lobbying Facebook to address the rampant hatred that continues to choke the most powerful social media platform in the world, top officials at several prominent civil rights organisations on Monday finally got a meeting with the boss.

Many, including Muslim Advocates and Colour of Change, are members of a coalition whose focus is pushing Facebook to strengthen its policies against bigotry and hate. Dozens of times this year, they’ve met with senior Facebook officials in attempts to underline the threat posed by white supremacists online. In meetings in Washington D.C., Atlanta, and elsewhere, the groups have displayed before executives like Sheryl Sandberg—Mark Zuckerberg’s right hand—myriad examples of the flagrant threats faced by religious Muslims and Jews, people of colour, and gay, lesbian, and transgender people.

For some of those targeted by Facebook’s vast hoards of bigots, these threats manifest in direct calls for violence and, often, for deaths. American Muslims and immigrants on Facebook, too, face violent threats, but are also menaced by calls for them to be expel from their home, the United States.

Several leaders of these civil rights organisers were invited to Zuckerberg’s Palo Alto home for dinner on Monday. Only a few at the table—offered a choice between steak or scallops—had ever spoken with the CEO before. That was in itself a bit awkward; the gathering followed news last month that Zuckerberg had dined recently with various conservative figures, including Fox News host Tucker Carlson. Many at Zuckerberg’s table think of Carlson as a white supremacist in his own right. He’s has spent much of the year personally maligning Minnesota Congresswoman Ilhan Omar, the first naturalized citizen from Africa elected to Congress, referring to her on one occasion as “living proof” that U.S. immigration policies are “dangerous.”

In the aftermath of the El Paso shooting, Carlson flatly dismissed the threat of white supremacists as a “hoax,” assuring millions of Fox viewers that it’s “actually not a real problem in America.” This Monday, the FBI announced that it had arrested another young, white man for plotting to blow up a synagogue. “I wish the Holocaust really did happen,” he reportedly wrote on Facebook, “they need to die.”

It’s no surprise that each of the civil rights groups has walked away from the Facebook meetings with slightly different takes on the company. Some even empathise with it, and believe it in a difficult position technologically to address the hatred spewed forth by a vocal subclass of racist, sexist, xenophobic, homophobic, transphobic user. Yet, a majority believe that Facebook wields precisely that, the power to weed out organised hate groups and individuals splattering vile bigotry across its pages; it merely harbours an unwillingness to do so.

Several of the Monday night’s dinner guests, including Farhana Khera, Muslim Advocates’ president and executive director, said they left Zuckerberg’s home feeling heard in ways they hadn’t in the dozens of meetings with his subordinates. One attendee even described the CEO as “genuinely intellectually curious” about the being issues raised, which ranged from voter suppression and dishonest political ads to the radicalisation of potential future terrorists. There was a “substantial” difference, they said, in how Zuckerberg engaged with the organisers compared to the other Facebook officials they’d met in the past.

“I felt like he listened, he engaged, and he asked questions,” said Rashad Robinson, president of Colour of Change, a former target of a smear campaign led by a public affairs firm hired by Facebook. The metric for success, however, is results, Robinson said.

“The area in which I focused was the gap between Facebook content policies that essentially prohibit dangerous speech, hate speech, and enforcement,” Khera told Gizmodo by phone. “There’s a set of policies that pretty clearly says dehumanising speech is not allowed on the platform. And even in Georgetown, in his remarks last month, Mark reiterated the company’s commitment to that policy and even gave an example of ‘all Muslims are terrorists’ would not be allowed on the platform.”

“But the reality is from what we see on a daily basis is that this content is proliferating on the platform,” she said. “So what I pushed Mark on is, ‘Look, you as a company proudly say that you’re able to remove 99 per cent of ISIS content before anyone even sees it, and you’re able to remove 99 per cent of child pornography before anyone sees it. I’d like you to have a similar commitment to the anti-Muslim hate content. This is harmful content, too.’”

“I would say I felt like I was heard,” she added. “After speaking with Mark, I’m feeling somewhat hopeful that moving forward, with his direct involvement, Facebook will take our concerns more seriously.”

A few civil rights organisers told Gizmodo that they’ve felt of late like they’re being used as props by Facebook, their frequent meetings with the company—often publicized but very rarely attended by members of the press—having served Facebook’s narrative, that its executives aren’t just sitting on their hands , that they’re actually doing something. Last year, in fact, Facebook agreed to an external civil rights audit and appointed former ACLU legislative director Laura Murphy to lead the effort, a welcomed decision by all. But the audit has since dragged on and some blame Facebook. The sporadic updates fed to the public have prompted little, if any, substantive change at the company, they said.

“We need C-suite level civil rights infrastructure inside of Facebook that, when new policies and practices come up, they’re evaluating them through a civil-rights lens,” Robinson said. “And they need a more organised, external stakeholder structure that is both holding them accountable and giving them feedback. And those things need to be not just called on when there are problems, but actually there before they roll these products or new policies.”

“I also pressed him around transparency,” he continued. “They’re building systems and tools, AI tools, that are intended on dealing with misinformation, dealing with hate, dealing with some of these things, right? But what is the transparency around how those systems they’re building are actually working? AI is also a product of human learning. Bad data in can become bad data out. In many ways, we need to understand how they are evaluating their fact record.”

Zuckerberg, who has often appeared wet and robotic in televised hearings before Congress, did somehow manage to bring about what Khera defined as “cautious hopefulness” to the group before the night was through. But much of that seems contingent on whether he stays personally involved in the process. “I think we have to continue to educate him and others in the company, in our society, about why these individuals are so problematic and the ways in which they’re actually, actively, working against the interests of our democracy,” she said.

“This was a meeting where we were able to engage on important issues like voter suppression and disinformation campaigns and hateful and inciteful conduct posted on its platform,” said Kristen Clark, the president and executive director of the Lawyers’ Committee for Civil Rights Under Law, who also attended the dinner. (Her organisation published a scathing letter to Zuckerberg about its potential legal liabilities 12 hours later.)

“Mark Zuckerberg was very engaged throughout the meeting,” she added, “but we’re going to continue to apply pressure to achieve reforms that are critical to the health of our democracy.”

“We’re grateful that these prominent leaders of the civil rights community took the time to attend a private dinner hosted by Mark and Sheryl,” a Facebook spokesperson told Gizmodo. “They discussed a range of important issues and we look forward to continuing these conversations.”

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