People

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."

Theranos’ investor pitches go on trial

Prosecutors in the Elizabeth Holmes fraud case are now highlighting allegations the company sought to mislead investors.

The fresh details of unproven claims made about the viability of Theranos' blood tests and efforts to conceal errors when demonstrating testing equipment added to the evidence against Holmes, who is accused of fraud in her role leading the company.

Photo: David Paul Morris/Bloomberg via Getty Images

The Theranos trial continued this week with testimony from Daniel Edlin, a former product manager at the blood-testing startup, and Shane Weber, a scientist from Pfizer. Their testimonies appeared to bolster the government's argument that Holmes intentionally defrauded investors and patients.

The fresh details about audacious and unproven claims made about the viability of Theranos' blood tests and efforts to conceal errors when demonstrating testing equipment added to the evidence against Holmes, who is accused of fraud in her role leading the company.

Keep Reading Show less
Aisha Counts

Aisha Counts (@aishacounts) is a reporting fellow at Protocol, based out of Los Angeles. Previously, she worked for Ernst & Young, where she researched and wrote about the future of work, emerging technologies and startups. She is a graduate of the University of Southern California, where she studied business and philosophy. She can be reached at acounts@protocol.com.

The way we work has fundamentally changed. COVID-19 upended business dealings and office work processes, putting into hyperdrive a move towards digital collaboration platforms that allow teams to streamline processes and communicate from anywhere. According to the International Data Corporation, the revenue for worldwide collaboration applications increased 32.9 percent from 2019 to 2020, reaching $22.6 billion; it's expected to become a $50.7 billion industry by 2025.

"While consumers and early adopter businesses had widely embraced collaborative applications prior to the pandemic, the market saw five years' worth of new users in the first six months of 2020," said Wayne Kurtzman, research director of social and collaboration at IDC. "This has cemented collaboration, at least to some extent, for every business, large and small."

Keep Reading Show less
Kate Silver

Kate Silver is an award-winning reporter and editor with 15-plus years of journalism experience. Based in Chicago, she specializes in feature and business reporting. Kate's reporting has appeared in the Washington Post, The Chicago Tribune, The Atlantic's CityLab, Atlas Obscura, The Telegraph and many other outlets.

Protocol | Policy

8 takeaways from states’ new filing against Google

New details have been unsealed in the states' antitrust suit against Google for anticompetitive behavior in the ads market.

Google is facing complaints by government competition enforcers on several fronts.

Photo: Drew Angerer/Getty Images

Up to 22%: That's the fee Google charges publishers for sales on its online ad exchanges, according to newly unredacted details in a complaint by several state attorneys general.

The figure is just one of the many details that a court allowed the states to unveil Friday. Many had more or less remained secrets inside Google and the online publishing industry, even through prior legal complaints and eager public interest.

Keep Reading Show less
Ben Brody

Ben Brody (@ BenBrodyDC) is a senior reporter at Protocol focusing on how Congress, courts and agencies affect the online world we live in. He formerly covered tech policy and lobbying (including antitrust, Section 230 and privacy) at Bloomberg News, where he previously reported on the influence industry, government ethics and the 2016 presidential election. Before that, Ben covered business news at CNNMoney and AdAge, and all manner of stories in and around New York. He still loves appearing on the New York news radio he grew up with.

Protocol | Workplace

This tech founder uses a converted Sprinter van as an office on wheels

The CEO of productivity startup Rock likes to work on the road. Here's how he does it — starting with three different WiFi hotspots.

Kenzo Fong, founder and CEO of the 20-person productivity software startup Rock, has been working out of his converted Mercedes-Benz Sprinter van since the pandemic began.

Photo: Kenzo Fong/Rock

Plenty of techies have started companies in garages. Try running a startup from a van.

In San Francisco, one software company founder has been using a converted Mercedes-Benz Sprinter van — picture an Amazon delivery vehicle — as a mobile office.

Keep Reading Show less
Allison Levitsky
Allison Levitsky is a reporter at Protocol covering workplace issues in tech. She previously covered big tech companies and the tech workforce for the Silicon Valley Business Journal. Allison grew up in the Bay Area and graduated from UC Berkeley.
Protocol | Policy

Most Americans want AI regulation — and they want it yesterday

In a poll, people said they wanted to see artificial intelligence technologies develop in the U.S. — alongside rules governing their use.

U.S. lawmakers have only just begun the long process of regulating the use of AI.

Photo: Louis Velazquez/Unsplash

Nearly two-thirds of Americans want the U.S to regulate the development and use of artificial intelligence in the next year or sooner — with half saying that regulation should have begun yesterday, according to a Morning Consult poll. Another 13% say that regulation should start in the next year.

"You can thread this together," Austin Carson, founder of new nonprofit group SeedAI and former government relations lead for Nvidia, said in an email. "Half or more Americans want to address all of these things, split pretty evenly along ideological lines."

Keep Reading Show less
Ben Brody

Ben Brody (@ BenBrodyDC) is a senior reporter at Protocol focusing on how Congress, courts and agencies affect the online world we live in. He formerly covered tech policy and lobbying (including antitrust, Section 230 and privacy) at Bloomberg News, where he previously reported on the influence industry, government ethics and the 2016 presidential election. Before that, Ben covered business news at CNNMoney and AdAge, and all manner of stories in and around New York. He still loves appearing on the New York news radio he grew up with.

ai
Latest Stories