Facebook moves set back civil rights: US report

Updated 09 Jul 2020

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The auditors expressed particular alarm at Facebook’s reluctance to take action on posts from Trump this year which  “allowed the propagation of hate/violent speech” and  “facilitated voter suppression”. — Reuters/File
The auditors expressed particular alarm at Facebook’s reluctance to take action on posts from Trump this year which “allowed the propagation of hate/violent speech” and “facilitated voter suppression”. — Reuters/File

SAN FRANCISCO: Face­b­ook has made a series of decisions that undermined civil rights, including allowing posts from President Donald Trump that violate the values of the leading social network, an independent audit report said on Wednesday.

The audit commissioned by Facebook in 2018 found the California giant had taken “important steps forward in building a long-term civil rights accountability structure” but “are not sufficient and should not be the end of Facebook’s progress”. Despite progress, “the auditors are concerned that those gains could be obscured by the vexing and heartbreaking decisions Facebook has made that represent significant setbacks for civil rights,” the 100-page report said.

The auditors expressed particular alarm at Facebook’s reluctance to take action on posts from Trump this year which “allowed the propagation of hate/violent speech” and “facilitated voter suppression.” Facebook’s inaction “seems to reflect a statement of values that protecting free expression is more important than other stated company values.” Facebook allowed the three posts from Trump in May to remain and “asserted that the posts did not violate its community standards,” the report said.

The auditors “vigorously made known our disagreement,” and claimed they “clearly violated Facebook’s policies,” it added.

“These decisions exposed a major hole in Facebook’s understanding and application of civil rights ... We believe civil rights expertise was not sought and applied to the degree it should have been and the resulting decisions were devastating.” The action could “establish terrible precedent for others to emulate,” the audit stated.

In recent weeks, Facebook did appear to make some changes, in one case removing a Trump campaign ad using a Nazi symbol. The company also said it would tag posts from world leaders that violate its policies even if they remain accessible because they are “newsworthy”.

Read: Facebook’s Trump policy disappoints rights leaders

The report detailed steps the social network has taken to fight bigotry, election tampering and more, but contended that the efforts are inadequate.

“Unfortunately, in our view Facebook’s approach to civil rights remains too reactive and piecemeal,” the report said.

The report recommends that Facebook build a stronger civil rights infrastructure that includes experts on key topics such as elections and hate speech, with a full-time team working under a “civil rights vice president” at the California-based company.

The report also calls for an interpretation of Facebook policy against voter suppression that prohibits content such as misleading Trump posts about the integrity of mail-in voting.

“Facebook has made policy and enforcement choices that leave our election exposed to interference by the president and others who seek to use misinformation to sow confusion and suppress voting,” the report said.

The report also advised Facebook to go beyond banning explicit references to white separatism and white nationalism to also prohibit them being praised, supported or represented at the social network.

The audit led by former American Civil Liberties Union lawyer Laura Murphy was launched at the behest of civil rights organisations and members of Congress seeking to ensure that “civil rights laws and principles are respected, embraced, and robustly incorporated into the work at Facebook,” according to the report.

Published in Dawn, July 9th, 2020