As noted in Facebook COO Sheryl Sandberg’s post, today is the day the public is supposed to find out the results of its independent civil rights audit, a two-year review of Facebook’s “policies and practices led by noted civil liberties and civil rights expert Laura W. Murphy and Megan Cacace, partner in the civil rights law firm Relman Colfax, PLLC,” said Sandberg. Well, those results are in, earlier than expected, and they confirm what we’ve known for a while about how Facebook handles the spread of discrimination and racism on its platform.
The New York Times first reported on the 100-page audit which details how the social media network failed to build a system in which it could adequately handle civil rights matters, and how it abdicated its responsibilities fighting discrimination. The auditors said Facebook did not seek civil rights expertise in all of its decisions, which set a precedent that could potentially affect the upcoming U.S. Presidential election in November. But the report went even further in its assessments by saying that Facebook is not only neglecting the concerns of vulnerable users but that the company’s “vexing and heartbreaking” choices have actively caused “significant setbacks for civil rights.”
This comes as no surprise, especially as we’ve seen employee walkouts and protests in recent months, and several prominent companies pulling their ads from Facebook. CEO Mark Zuckerberg has been widely criticised for allowing Trump’s inflammatory posts to remain on his Facebook page, where other social media networks like Twitter have either taken them down or slapped a warning label of some kind. Facebook seems to have only started taking its problems seriously due to the backlash. It only recently banned trading historical artifacts even though it’s known about it for years, and only recently purged almost 200 accounts associated with white supremacy groups. But according to its civil rights audit, it’s likely too little too late.
Additionally, Sandberg outright stated in her post that Facebook “won’t be making every change” the proposal calls for, to which she followed up with “We will put more of their proposals into practice soon.” That doesn’t inspire a lot of confidence that Facebook will actually do what it needs to do to combat discrimination and racism, never mind fake news, on its platform. The Stop Hate for Profit campaign, which was started due to Facebook’s inaction on civil rights issues, and is lead by groups like the Anti-Defamation League, Colour of Change, Free Press, the NAACP, and Sleeping Giants, told Gizmodo that the company refused to address any of its recommendations, except for possibly hiring for another civil rights position that would not be at a senior level. Its full list of recommendations is available on its website.
While the audit is highly critical of Facebook, it does say that the company has made strides in hiring more in-house civil rights experts over the past two years, and that Zuckerberg himself is personally committed to advancing racial justice by building products. It’s unclear how “building products” will advance racial justice, but if Facebook intends to profit off said products in any way, it would be disingenuous given Facebook’s repeated failure to address its civil rights issues.
“Elevating free expression is a good thing, but it should apply to everyone,” the auditors wrote. “When it means that 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 auditors recommended Facebook build a stronger civil rights infrastructure and that it needed to be more consistent in enforcing its policies. The Times notes that Facebook has pledged to make some commitments in response to the audit, such as creating a senior vice president of civil rights leadership position and developing new internal processes to support the civil rights of users. The old adage ‘I’ll believe it when I see it’ definitely applies here. If Facebook was so unwilling to address the concerns of the Stop Hate for Profit campaign, how much can its users trust that it will listen to the auditors’ recommendations?
In the meantime, Facebook users can do a few things to demand change. The Stop Hate for Profit campaign says to urge businesses to stop spending any money to advertise on Facebook for the rest of July and continuing to speak out against Facebook’s inaction on civil rights issues. When Ben & Jerry’s parent company, Unilever, pulled its ads in late June 2020, Facebook’s stock dropped more than 7%. Since then, 14 companies have either pulled or suspended their Facebook ads, but not enough to affect Facebook’s bottom line.