Facebook Decisions Were ‘Setbacks for Civil Rights,’ Audit Finds

SAN FRANCISCO — Facebook has not done enough to fight discrimination on its platform and has made some decisions that were “significant setbacks for civil rights,” according to a new independent audit of the company’s policies and practices.

In a 100-page prepublication report, which was obtained by The New York Times, the social network was repeatedly faulted for not having the infrastructure for handling civil rights and for prioritizing free expression on its platform over nondiscrimination. In some decisions, Facebook did not seek civil rights expertise, the auditors said, potentially setting a “terrible” precedent that could affect the November general election and other speech issues.

“Many in the civil rights community have become disheartened, frustrated and angry after years of engagement where they implored the company to do more to advance equality and fight discrimination, while also safeguarding free expression,” wrote the auditors, Laura W. Murphy and Megan Cacace, who are civil rights experts and lawyers. They said they had “vigorously advocated for more and would have liked to see the company go further to address civil rights concerns in a host of areas.”

The report, which was the culmination of two years of examination of the social network, was another blow for the Silicon Valley company. Facebook has been under pressure for allowing hate speech, misinformation and other content that can go against people’s civil rights to fester on its site. While rivals like Twitter, Snap and Reddit have all taken action in recent weeks to label, downplay or ban such content, Facebook has said it will not do so because it believes in free speech.

That has spurred civil rights groups to organize a “Stop Hate for Profit” campaign aimed against the social media company. More than 300 advertisers like Coca-Cola and North Face recently agreed to pause their spending on Facebook because it had failed to curtail the spread of hate speech and misinformation on its platform.

On Tuesday, civil rights leaders met with Facebook’s chief executive, Mark Zuckerberg, and chief operating officer, Sheryl Sandberg, with 10 demands, including appointing a civil rights executive. But those who attended said the Facebook executives did not agree to many of their requests and instead spouted “spin.”

Facebook’s executives had previously pointed to the civil rights audit as a sign that the company was seriously grappling with what was on its site.

In a statement on Wednesday about the audit, Ms. Sandberg said the report was “the beginning of the journey, not the end.” She added: “What has become increasingly clear is that we have a long way to go. As hard as it has been to have our shortcomings exposed by experts, it has undoubtedly been a really important process for our company.”

In the report, the auditors credited Facebook for making progress on some issues, including increasing hiring of in-house civil rights experts over the past two years. Mr. Zuckerberg had also personally committed to building products that “advance racial justice,” the report said.

But the report was critical of Facebook’s handling of speech — particularly speech from politicians — and the effects on users. The auditors said Facebook had been too willing to exempt politicians from abiding by its rules, allowing them to spread misinformation, harmful and divisive rhetoric, and even calls to violence.

The auditors said their concerns had increased over the past nine months because of decisions made by Mr. Zuckerberg and Nick Clegg, Facebook’s global head of policy and communications.

Their concerns were exacerbated last fall, when Mr. Zuckerberg delivered a speech at Georgetown University about his commitment to protecting free speech at all costs. Since then, the report noted, Facebook had refused to take down inflammatory posts from President Trump and had allowed untruthful political ads to be circulated.

“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.”

They added, “The prioritization of free expression over all other values, such as equality and nondiscrimination, is deeply troubling.”

In a series of recommendations, the auditors said Facebook needed to build a more robust civil rights infrastructure. They added that Facebook needed to be consistent in its policies and its enforcement, including “more concrete action and specific commitments to take steps to address concerns about algorithmic bias or discrimination.”

Facebook has pledged to make some commitments in response to the audit. In the report, the company said it would create a role for a senior vice president of civil rights leadership that will report up through the legal department and ultimately to Ms. Sandberg. Facebook also promised to develop new internal processes that support the civil rights of users, across its product and policy teams.

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