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Facebook’s decision on Trump posts is a ‘devastating’ setback, says internal audit

Following a two-year audit, a new report finds Facebook's approach to civil rights to be "reactive and piecemeal."

Mark Zuckerberg standing in front of his own face on a screen

A new report argues that several recent posts in which President Trump shared misleading information about voting and called for shooting looters in Minnesota violate Facebook's own policies.

Photo: Chip Somodevilla/Getty Images

In a newly released report commissioned by Facebook, a team of civil rights experts found that the company made a "devastating" error in failing to take action against several of President Trump's recent posts. The report, which is the culmination of a two-year civil rights audit at Facebook, echoes sentiments made by a growing coalition of advertisers, including giants like Verizon and Unilever, that have begun boycotting Facebook over its stance on hate speech and other forms of content.

The 100-page report examines a range of topics, from Facebook's hate speech policies and approach to hiring to its work on election interference. But the authors — Laura W. Murphy, former director of the ACLU's legislative office, and Megan Cacace, a partner in the civil rights law firm Relman Colfax — reserve special scrutiny for the company's treatment of the President's posts. They argue that several recent posts in which Trump shared misleading information about voting and called for shooting looters in Minnesota violate Facebook's own policies. In opting not to enforce those policies, Murphy and Cacace write, the company has not only set a dangerous precedent that other politicians could exploit, but it's also undermined its own professed commitment to civil rights.

"While these decisions were made ultimately at the highest level, we believe civil rights expertise was not sought and applied to the degree it should have been," the report reads, "and the resulting decisions were devastating."

In May, Trump wrote on Facebook that Nevada and Michigan had sent mail-in and absentee ballots to voters "illegally" and that the governor of California sent ballots to "anyone living in the state, no matter who they are or how they got there." None of those statements is true, and therefore, the authors argue, they violate Facebook's policies against misrepresenting information about methods for voting and what materials are required to vote.

"If politicians are free to mislead people about official voting methods (by labeling ballots illegal or making other misleading statements that go unchecked, for example) and are allowed to use not-so-subtle dog whistles with impunity to incite violence against groups advocating for racial justice, this does not bode well for the hostile voting environment that can be facilitated by Facebook in the United States," the authors write.

Facebook COO Sheryl Sandberg, who heads the company's Civil Rights Task Force, published her own response to the report, touting Facebook as "the first social media company to undertake an audit of this kind." But Sandberg acknowledged that the company has "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," she wrote. "We would urge companies in our industry and beyond to do the same."

Sandberg went on to acknowledge that "some of the starkest criticism" in the report had to do with Trump's posts. "In the auditors' view, the emphasis we've placed on free expression has not been adequately balanced by the critical value of nondiscrimination," Sandberg wrote. "The auditors also strongly disagree with our policy to not fact check politicians and believe that the end result means more voice for those in positions of power."

But Sandberg did not indicate whether Facebook would take the report's authors up on any of their recommendations, which were based on consultations with more than 100 civil rights groups and hundreds of advocates. Those recommendations include, among other things, broadening its definition of voter suppression and strengthening enforcement of that policy, as well as building out a team of civil rights experts to report to a new civil rights vice president that Facebook has said it plans to hire.

"A senior executive who had influence and a team of professionals to assure that policies and products are vetted for their civil rights implications before they are launched should have been onboarded much sooner," the authors wrote.

On Tuesday, Facebook's most senior executives, including Sandberg, CEO Mark Zuckerberg, and Chief Product Officer Chris Cox, met virtually with civil rights advocates who have been leading the advertiser boycotts through the creation of the #StopHateforProfit campaign. Those advocates came to the meeting with their own list of demands, many of which mirror the recommendations in the civil rights audit. But in a call with reporters following the meeting, the advocates said they were left disappointed.

"They showed up to the meeting expecting an A for attendance. Attending alone is not enough," said Rashad Robinson, president of the civil rights group Color of Change. "We were expecting some very clear answers to the recommendations we put on the table, and we did not get them."

The report's authors did give Facebook credit for some of the progress it's made on civil rights issues since the audit began in 2018. The company has, for instance, built stronger defenses against foreign interference in elections, developed a policy around protecting the U.S. Census, expanded its voter suppression policies, and built a team to study and defend against algorithmic bias.

But ultimately, Murphy and Cacace found that Facebook's approach to civil rights is "reactive and piecemeal," at best. Two years into their research, the authors write that they hoped Facebook would have come up with a comprehensive plan of action to address the concerns civil rights groups were backing in 2018. Instead, they write, "the frustration directed at Facebook from some quarters is at the highest level seen since the company was founded."

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