Facebook continues to operate with glaring blind spots for hateful content and misinformation on the site and has made a number of decisions in the last year that “represent significant setbacks for civil rights,” according to a highly anticipated audit of the company’s practices.
The report, which was commissioned by Facebook and put together by a team of civil rights attorneys over a two-year period, raised concerns about “vexing and heartbreaking decisions” made by the social network, including its decision not to take action on multiple controversial posts from President Donald Trump and being “far too reluctant to adopt strong rules to limit misinformation and voter suppression” with the 2020 election only months away.
The audit comes as Facebook (FB) is under pressure from civil rights groups who helped organize a large advertising boycott to clean up its site and do more to identify and remove hate speech and misinformation.
The lead attorney conducting the audit, Laura Murphy, told CNN in an interview that Facebook is not “at the point where the appreciation of civil rights is as robust as it should be.”
While the report commended the company for taking some steps over the two-year period to put in place more stringent controls on its content, it also stated that auditors were “deeply concerned that the last two years were not used to put a more robust civil rights infrastructure in place at Facebook.”
The report was particularly critical of the company for its inaction on recent posts from Trump, including one alleging “illegal” absentee voting and another during a protest in which he said “looting” would lead to “shooting.”
The auditors concluded that the company’s decision not to remove these posts is “deeply troubling.” According to the report, “One post allowed the propagation of hate/violent speech and two facilitated voter suppression. In all three cases Facebook asserted that the posts did not violate its Community Standards.”
The auditors voiced their disagreement with the company’s decision to leave the President’s posts on the site, the report said, but the decision to keep the posts there was made “at the highest level.” These decisions also prompted sharp criticisms from Facebook employees as well as civil rights groups at the time.
“We believe civil rights expertise was not sought and applied to the degree it should have been and the resulting decisions were devastating,” the report said. “Our fear was (and continues to be) that these decisions establish terrible precedent for others to emulate.”
Facebook has now committed to hiring a senior executive at the vice president level with civil rights experience to oversee the company’s application of civil rights priorities. The civil rights groups behind the advertiser boycott had demanded a c-suite level executive with a civil rights profile.
“What has become increasingly clear is that we have a long way to go,” said Facebook Chief Operating Officer Sheryl Sandberg, who has been the point person for the company’s efforts to address civil rights concerns. “As hard as it has been to have our shortcomings exposed by experts, it has undoubtedly been a really important process for our company. We would urge companies in our industry and beyond to do the same.”
Murphy said in the interview that the company is facing an “important moment” in which urgent action is needed and it “remains to be seen” if the company is willing to act quickly enough.
“I don’t think there’s a big window,” Murphy said. “I think people are very concerned about domestic actors using the platform to interfere with our elections and to spread misinformation.”
Civil rights leaders who met with top executives of the company on Tuesday, including Sandberg and CEO Mark Zuckerberg, slammed Facebook for failing to outline a specific timeline for taking future steps to address hate speech, voter suppression and hate groups on its platform.
“I think there is some areas where the company adopts timelines like they’ve adopted a timeline for increasing diversity numbers that are very strong, and in other areas there’s just too much deliberation and not enough action,” Murphy said.
“We tried to lay out a game plan for the company, but really the ball’s in their court now,” Murphy said.