Facebook has agreed to undergo at least two outside audits to address concerns from groups that don't often see eye to eye: civil rights groups and right-wing politicians.
The two separate audits will address two recent criticisms of Facebook: that it doesn’t do enough to moderate and control racial and religious hate speech, and that its policies entrench liberal bias and censor conservative political views.
The audits will involve outside nonprofit groups, politicians, and law firms, who will vet the platform's privacy settings, algorithms, speech policies, and more, for bias against minorities and bias against conservatives.
The agreement to a civil rights audit, first reported by Axios, stems from a meeting between Facebook policymakers and representatives from civil rights groups in Washington last Wednesday, one in a series of meetings convened following the violent white supremacist rally in Charlottesville, Virginia, last summer. Following that meeting, Facebook gave itself until Tuesday May 1 to decide whether it would undergo an audit.
The audit of political bias comes days after a hearing on Capitol Hill in the Republican-led House Judiciary Committee, which invited conservative pro-Trump commentators Diamond and Silk to testify about their concerns that they’re getting punished for their views by Facebook’s algorithm. "Facebook along with other social media sites have taken aggressive actions to silence conservative voices like ourselves,” Lynnette Hardaway (aka Diamond) told the committee.
Muslim Advocates, a legal advocacy and educational organization for civil rights, praised the move Wednesday but also expressed concern that Facebook had paired these announcements. While the presence of hate speech on Facebook is a longstanding problem around the globe supported by clear evidence, complaints of political bias have run across the spectrum since Facebook shifted its algorithm to favor content from friends over news and political groups.
“We strongly reject the message this sends regarding the moral equivalency of hate group activities and conservative viewpoints”
“We strongly reject the message this sends regarding the moral equivalency of hate group activities and conservative viewpoints,” Muslim Advocates said in a statement.
The group also asked that Facebook share its findings of the audits publicly. “For this audit to be a true step forward, it must be a thorough and public assessment of the civil rights and privacy impact of the company’s policies and programs,” Madihha Ahussain, special counsel for anti-Muslim bigotry at Muslim Advocates, said.
Facebook’s hate speech audit will be led by Laura Murphy, former director of the ACLU’s D.C. legislative office, with support from Relman, Dane & Colfax, a D.C.-based law firm that has handled civil rights cases in the past. Murphy will be taking advice from the Leadership Conference on Civil Rights, headed by DOJ’s former Civil Rights Director Vanita Gupta, Axios reported. Murphy is also leading a review of bias among hosts and booking people at Airbnb.
Civil rights groups first called for an independent audit of Facebook last October. Muslim Advocates, one of the groups present at Wednesday’s meeting, sent Facebook CEO Mark Zuckerberg and COO Sheryl Sandberg a letter undersigned by 18 other civil rights organizations, expressing concern over the social media company’s “inadequate response to the hate speech and bigotry that flourishes on its platform.”
Facebook CEO Mark Zuckerberg told Congress in April, “We do not allow hate groups on Facebook, overall.” But VICE News found many examples of well-known white supremacist and neo-Nazi hate groups operating in the open, communicating with members and even raising cash.
Civil rights groups have also expressed concern over reports that Immigration and Customs Enforcement were using Facebook data to identify and track individuals suspected of being in the U.S. illegally. The audit would look at whether Facebook’s policies are complicit, and if they violate the civil rights of users who are residing in the U.S. without documentation.
In recent weeks, Facebook appears to have taken other steps to address concerns about both transparency and hate groups or hate speech. Last Tuesday, one day before the company met with civil rights groups in D.C., Facebook published its internal community standards guide. The guide includes a section on hate speech.
“We define hate speech as a direct attack on people based on what we call protected characteristics — race, ethnicity, national origin, religious affiliation, sexual orientation, sex, gender, gender identity, and serious disability or disease,” Facebook's guide states. “We also provide some protections for immigration status. We define 'attack' as violent or dehumanizing speech, statements of inferiority, or calls for exclusion or segregation.”
On Tuesday, Facebook accidentally rolled out a new “hate speech” feature that allowed users to report any content on their feed with just one click of a button. The feature caused widespread confusion; users posted screenshots from their feeds showing the “hate speech” button underneath innocuous family photos or targeted ads. After two hours, the button vanished.
“This was an internal test we were working on to understand different types of speech, including speech we thought would not be hate,” a spokesperson for Facebook told VICE News in an email. “A bug caused it to launch publicly. It’s been disabled.”
Cover image: Mark Zuckerberg, chief executive officer and founder of Facebook Inc., speaks during the F8 Developers Conference in San Jose, California, on Tuesday, May 1, 2018. (Photo: David Paul Morris/Bloomberg via Getty Images)