News

Facebook Just Failed Its First Ever Civil Rights Audit

The auditors warned that Facebook's failures to address misinformation will have "direct and consequential implications" for the 2020 election.
08 July 2020, 3:49pm
AP Photo/Andrew Harnik, File
AP Photo/Andrew Harnik, File

Want the best of VICE News straight to your inbox? Sign up here.

Facebook’s repeated failures to address the rampant hate speech and misinformation on its platform have left the 2020 presidential election wide open to interference by President Donald Trump, according to a scathing new report.

A 100-page civil rights audit published Wednesday morning lays bare Facebook’s failings, and the auditors conclude that Facebook’s failure “to grasp the urgency” of the situation will have “direct and consequential implications“ on the U.S. presidential elections in November.

Two years ago, Facebook bowed to pressure from activist groups around the world and agreed to an audit of how the company deals with civil rights issues such as hate speech, election interference, and misinformation.

Now the report is ready, and the findings are not good.

The authors highlight a two-tiered system in which Trump’s Facebook comments about the security of mail-in ballots and his threats to protesters are left unmoderated even though they violate the company’s own policies on hate speech and misinformation.

“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 says.

The social media giant has also repeatedly failed to adequately address the concerns raised by rights groups about hate speech and misinformation targeting minorities and religious groups, the audit found. And despite its many public promises to do better, it has repeatedly failed to actually do better.

The audit was conducted by lawyers and civil rights experts Laura Murphy and Megan Cacace, and their 100-page report describes a “seesaw of progress and setbacks” at Facebook, on everything from bias in the company’s algorithms to its content moderation.

“While the audit process has been meaningful, and has led to some significant improvements in the platform, we have also watched the company make painful decisions over the last nine months with real-world consequences that are serious setbacks for civil rights,” the report states.

Facebook has faced criticism from civil rights groups for years for the company’s inability to deal with hate speech and misinformation targeting minorities and religious groups. But the audit is the first time the scale of the problem facing CEO Mark Zuckerberg has been laid bare for everyone to see.

In recent months, Zuckerberg has championed free speech on his network rather than focusing on protecting minority groups. His support of free expression was most clearly seen in his decision not to take down or flag incendiary comments from Trump, who threatened Black Lives Matter protesters in a Facebook post

Facebook said at the time it left the post untouched because it didn’t violate its Violence and Incitement policies, which allow leaders to post about government use of force if the message is intended as a warning.

But rather than creating a level playing field, the result of Zuckerberg’s policies is a two-tier system where ordinary users are treated differently to politicians, a situation that could have dire effects on the outcome of the November election, the auditors warned.

“When it means that powerful politicians do not have to abide by the same rules that everyone else does, a hierarchy of speech is created that privileges certain voices over less powerful voices,” the report says. “Facebook has been far too reluctant to adopt strong rules to limit misinformation and voter suppression. With less than five months before a presidential election, it confounds the auditors as to why Facebook has failed to grasp the urgency.”

The auditors also warn that the structure of the platform is radicalizing users, by amplifying extreme viewpoints that affirmed and entrenched people’s pre-existing beliefs.

“Facebook should do everything in its power to prevent its tools and algorithms from driving people toward self-reinforcing echo chambers of extremism, and that the company must recognize that failure to do so can have dangerous (and life-threatening) real-world consequences.”

One of the areas the auditor highlighted as a major concern was anti-Muslim hate speech, pointing out that Facebook directed users to increasingly dangerous posts promoting white nationalism.

“Facebook is enabling violence and genocide against Muslims,” Farhana Khera, the executive director of Muslim Advocates said of the report’s findings on the group’s website.

“We don’t have time for more empty promises and futile data collection exercises. We need action. Facebook must, finally, take responsibility for the hate it has unleashed on the world.”

READ: Facebook censored an account copying Trump's words for inciting violence

Facebook Chief Operating Officer Sheryl Sandberg said in a blog post that Facebook would not be implementing all of the auditors’ recommendations.

While we won’t make every change they call for, we will put more of their proposals into practice. We have started to do that — and we are making new commitments today.” Sandberg did not specify what those new commitments were.

But the auditors point out that Facebook has a long history of making big promises about addressing hate speech and misinformation, but has repeatedly failed to follow through with concrete changes.

“With each success, the auditors became more hopeful that Facebook would develop a more coherent and positive plan of action that demonstrated, in word and deed, the company’s commitment to civil rights. Unfortunately, in our view Facebook’s approach to civil rights remains too reactive and piecemeal,” the report says.

READ: Facebook’s ad problem just turned Into a full-blown crisis

That was the case on Tuesday, when Zuckerberg and Sandberg and other Facebook executives met with representatives of a coalition of civil rights groups who have organized the Stop Hate for Profit campaign, which has resulted in more than 1,000 companies pulling their ads from Facebook for the month of July.

In the meeting, which took place on Zoom and lasted about an hour, campaigners outlined a list of 10 improvements they wanted Facebook to make. While the company did agree to hire a top executive with a civil rights background, the activists complained that the company was simply rolling out “its powerful PR machine and trying to spin the news.

“It was abundantly clear in our meeting today that Mark Zuckerberg and the Facebook team is not yet ready to address the vitriolic hate on their platform,” the campaign said in a statement after the meeting.

Cover: In this Oct. 23, 2019 file photo, Facebook CEO Mark Zuckerberg testifies before a House Financial Services Committee hearing on Capitol Hill in Washington. (AP Photo/Andrew Harnik, File)

This article originally appeared on VICE US.