Earlier this week, Facebook COO Sheryl Sandberg wrote a long post on her account, acknowledging that Facebook still has a lot to do in its eventual goal of curbing incendiary hate speech on its platform. Through her post, Sandberg also spoke about an independent audit of Facebook’s civil rights practices and policies, held over two years, which has since been published Wednesday, July 8. The audit has underlined a number of key issues at Facebook, which auditor and independent civil rights expert Laura W. Murphy has rightly summed up as a “seesaw of progress and setbacks” at Facebook, when it comes to taking the right steps towards promoting civil rights.
Murphy, a former director of the American Civil Liberties Union, undertook the audit over two years since 2018, with Megan Cacace, partner at Relman Colfax, and the internal cooperation of Facebook. The key findings of the audit has found Facebook to have taken an approach that has been deemed “too reactive”. Murphy noted a number of steps taken by Facebook as positive and could hence be deemed as clear signs of progress.
Some of Facebook’s key progress areas included expansion of voter suppression policies, a more “robust” census interference policy, taking steps towards building civil rights awareness and accountability, greater frequency of consulting with civil rights leaders, updating content moderation policies in line with recent issues, attempting to improve in-house diversities, and also improving responsibility of AI methodologies as well as privacy policies.
However, Murphy has noted to emphatic effect that the progresses that Facebook has made are mostly titular, and barely constitute a first step in what may be deemed as adequate civil rights regulations. The audit has noted that Facebook’s diversity goals are nowhere close to being met, more importantly so in leadership positions. Issues such as Facebook’s failure to curb or moderate US president Donald Trump’s incendiary posts on the platform can be noted as some of the company’s biggest failings, which the audit has noted as Facebook’s lack of “understanding and application of civil rights”.
In contrast of Facebook CEO Mark Zuckerberg’s determination to not take a political stand in the guise of maintaining balance on the platform, Murphy and Cacace’s audit states, “Incidents such as these leave our election exposed to interference by the president and others who seek to use misinformation to sow confusion and suppress voting.” The audit also falls in line with the voices of dissent that rose internally at Facebook as a result of Zuckerberg’s defending of his contentious stance, as well as the more recent opinions of the organisers behind the largest organised advertisement boycott movement, Stop Hate for Profit.
Prior to the publishing of the audit, Sandberg and Zuckerberg reportedly met with organisers of the largest Facebook ad boycott that has seen the likes of Coca-Cola, Starbucks, Unilever and Verizon, among hundreds of other significant players, pull ad spending out of Facebook. The organisers, who are protesting against Facebook’s lack of taking responsibility for acts such as hate speech, propaganda and misinformation, stated after the meeting with the Facebook hierarchy that it was far from satisfactory.
It is this that underlines the tone of the entire audit – while Facebook may win plaudits for undertaking the audit and acknowledging that there is a lot of work left to be done, the company has to get moving at a faster pace to show urgency and intent in making its platform a cleaner, more responsible place for everyone. Many, including the audit, has questioned Zuckerberg’s attempts to put everything in relativity and a general shrugging-off of certain responsibilities that should lie at the core of a platform that is as impactful as Facebook.
The full, 89-page civil rights audit has been made available for everyone to access, and can be read here.