The civil rights auditors Facebook hired to scrutinize its civil rights record on Wednesday delivered a long-awaited and scathing indictment of the social media giant’s decisions to prioritize free speech above other values, which they called a “tremendous setback” that opened the door for abuse by politicians.
The report criticized Facebook’s choice to leave several posts by President Trump untouched, including three in May that the auditors said “clearly violated” the company’s policies prohibiting voter suppression, hate speech and incitement of violence.
The conclusions by Facebook’s own auditors are likely to bolster criticism that the company has too much power and that it bends and stretches its rules for powerful people. Though Facebook frequently says it listens to experts when making judgment calls, the company’s decisions on recent posts by Trump and others suggest that is not always the case on critical matters of free speech.
“When you put free expression on top of every other consideration, I think civil rights considerations take more of a back seat,” said Laura Murphy, a civil rights lawyer and independent consultant who led the two-year audit.
The report potentially carries more weight than the other criticisms of Facebook on civil rights — including a widespread advertiser boycott — because Facebook commissioned it. However, it carries no guarantee that Facebook will make major changes to its policies or practices.
“Being a platform where everyone can make their voice heard is core to our mission, but that doesn’t mean it’s acceptable for people to spread hate. It’s not,” Facebook Chief Operating Officer Sheryl Sandberg wrote in a blog post in response to the report. “We have clear policies against hate — and we strive constantly to get better and faster at enforcing them.”
The report comes on the heels of a meeting Facebook held with the organizers of a fast-growing boycott of over 1,000 advertisers, who have several demands of Facebook, including hiring a top-level executive who will ensure the global platform does not fuel racism and radicalization. The timing of the publication of the long-anticipated report led the civil rights groups organizing the boycott to argue Facebook was attempting to use it to draw attention away from their demands, which also include ending exceptions for politicians. The organizers called the Tuesday meeting “disappointing.”
Facebook denied it was trying to deflect attention from the boycott.
Facebook’s auditors faulted the social network for making policy decisions that undermine civil rights progress. They said Facebook failed to improve the experience of people of color who use the platform and provides a forum for white supremacy and white nationalism. They also said the company had delayed acting on calls to hire experts in civil rights to senior leadership positions, noting recent decisions over hate speech were made by senior executives who lacked specific civil rights expertise and nuanced understandings of race.
Facebook has made some concessions, including adding fact-checking labels to certain posts. The auditors praised the concessions but said they did not go far enough.
Civil rights leaders said the release of the report is by no means an “end game” in their efforts to change the social network. Vanita Gupta, president and CEO of the Leadership Conference on Civil and Human Rights, said that work is increasingly critical in light of the intense polarization sweeping the country amid the pandemic and widespread protests against racism.
“There is so much at stake in this moment for the platform to get it right, for our democracy and for our communities,” she said. “The work is going to continue. We’re going to continue to press, to push to make these changes even after the final report comes out.”
It remains to be seen what changes Facebook will make in light of the report. Murphy said she’s hopeful Facebook will adopt some of the audit’s recommendations, but she noted it will take continued advocacy and pressure to ensure that happens.
“I just can’t predict which issues are going to make it across the finish line,” she said.