What a damning civil rights audit missed about Facebook
July 10, 2020
After two years of work, an independent civil rights audit of Facebook is now complete. The company had been under pressure from Congress and civil rights groups to undertake such an effort for some time, but the audit was voluntary on Facebook’s part. And while sometimes these outside consulting projects approach the client with kid gloves, lead auditor Laura Murphy and her team at the law firm Relman Colfax delivered an 89-page assessment of Facebook’s policies around voter suppression, hate speech, algorithmic bias, and content moderation that is measured but often unsparing.
Auditors took particular exception to Facebook’s decisions to let stand recent posts from President Trump that, in their view, violated the company’s stated policies around voter suppression and incitements to violence. “Facebook’s constrained reading of its policies was both astounding and deeply troubling for the precedents it seemed to set,” the report stated.
In their introductory remarks, Murphy and her team write:
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. […]
Unfortunately, in our view Facebook’s approach to civil rights remains too reactive and piecemeal. Many in the civil rights community have become disheartened, frustrated and angry after years of engagement where they implored the company to do more to advance equality and fight discrimination, while also safeguarding free expression. As the final report is being issued, the frustration directed at Facebook from some quarters is at the highest level seen since the company was founded, and certainly since the Civil Rights Audit started in 2018.”
The audit also catalogs dozens of steps Facebook has taken to better support civil rights: overhauling its ad platform to prohibit various forms of discrimination; expanding policies against voter suppression and Census information; building a team to study and eliminate bias in artificial intelligence; and agreeing to hire an employee at the vice president level to focus on civil rights work.
It’s clear from the audit that Facebook has taken civil rights much more seriously over the past two years than it ever has before, in ways that can be observed throughout the company; it’s also clear that the authors believe that a series of recent policy decisions has significantly undermined progress to date.
The audit was delivered in the midst of an advertiser boycott spearheaded by civil rights groups in connection with the same Trump posts that upset auditors. Representatives of some of those groups met virtually with Facebook CEO Mark Zuckerberg and COO Sheryl Sandberg this week, and sharply criticized them afterward. Here are Kurt Wagner and Naomi Nix in Bloomberg:
“Facebook approached our meeting today like it was nothing more than a PR exercise,” Jessica González, co-chief executive officer of Free Press, a non-profit media advocacy group, said in a statement following the meeting. “I’m deeply disappointed that Facebook still refuses to hold itself accountable to its users, its advertisers and society at large.”
Facebook CEO Mark Zuckerberg and Chief Operating Officer Sheryl Sandberg also met with members of the NAACP, the Anti-Defamation League and Color of Change, who have organized a boycott of the company’s advertising products in seeking to prompt change. The executives didn’t “commit to a timeline” to remove disinformation and hate speech, Gonzalez said, but instead “delivered the same old talking points to try to placate us without meeting our demands.”
The groups have 10 demands that I’m aware of. What is most striking about them to me is how small most of them are. This campaign is not calling for Facebook to adopt a new business model, spin off its acquisitions, or end all algorithmic promotion of groups. Instead it calls for that civil rights executive Facebook plans to hire to be given a C-level title rather than vice president; refund advertisers when their ads are found running next to hate speech; and to submit to further audits like the one that wrapped up this week. The biggest ask is that Facebook fact-check political ads, which the company has dug in its heels against doing. Otherwise the demands reads like a list of requests that Facebook is already moving toward directionally.
That’s why I trip a little bit over the way these groups are excoriating Facebook here. The level of outrage feels disconnected from the demands. Perhaps this is because they are practicing realpolitik — Rashad Robinson, who has helped to organize the ad boycott as the head of civil rights group Color of Change, suggests as much in an interview with Charlie Warzel at the New York Times. Robinson says:
I believe we’re not going to win this fight through policies that Facebook puts in place. Yes, there are things Facebook could do tinkering on the margins. And, honestly, the only reason I’m at the table is because we don’t have the legislative and regulatory levers to pull right now. So I feel I need to be there. But the big fixes need those levers.
But from the auditors to the organizers, the refrain is the same: take down those awful Trump posts! The Trump posts are at the heart of everything. The outsiders disagree with a content moderation decision that the CEO made, and everything else is downstream of that.
There is another way of thinking about this problem.
Facebook is so big that two of its properties, which collectively have hundreds of millions of users between them, were exempted from the audit altogether. Instagram and WhatsApp were deemed outside the scope of the two-year project, as were Facebook’s civil rights problems outside the United States.
It’s true that addressing the auditors’ complaints about the core Facebook app will have civil-rights benefits to Instagram, WhatsApp, and the larger world. But it also seems notable that even a multi-year audit resulting in a report that runs to nearly 100 pages can’t even attempt to consider the problem in a holistic way. As in so many other things, Facebook is a problem you can’t get your arms all the way around.
When the reckoning over social media platforms began in 2017, it was often said that Facebook’s proposed solution for every problem identified was “more Facebook”: more employees, more policies, more processes, more product, more features. It seems notable that the civil rights audit, for all its harsh judgments about recent decisions by the company, adopts the same point of view.
The audit calls for the hiring of more people with civil-rights expertise at every level of the company. It suggests various new policies and procedures be put in place to identify civil-rights risks and mitigate harms. It proposes trainings and seminars to educate the workforce and a civil rights expert in the room whenever a controversial decision about content is being made. The auditors’ view of Facebook is one in which the company looks more or less the same as it does today, except with an extra person in every meeting saying “civil rights.”
That would surely do some good. But it would not make Facebook’s decisions any less consequential, or reduce the chance that a future content moderation decision or product problem stirs up the present level of outrage. The company could implement all of the auditors’ suggestions and nearly every dilemma would still come down to the decision of one person overseeing the communications of 1.73 billion people each day.
When the internet was smaller and less centralized, we worried less about the awful posts on individual forums. They didn’t travel as far, or land as hard. The forums were not plugged into a directory of every internet user, and so they could not recruit new users via a machine-learning system that guessed, accurately, which users might be sympathetic to anti-vaccine views, or white supremacist views, or QAnon.
Facebook didn’t start any of those movements, but an open question is the degree to which it could be accelerating them. And that is not a question about policy or enforcement so much as it is about the platform’s underlying dynamics and its staggering size. Nor it is a question that the incoming vice president of civil rights will likely be empowered to ask, no matter how relevant the answer is to the task at hand.
The good news is that the House Judiciary Antitrust Subcommittee is empowered to ask that question, and plans to. Mark Zuckerberg is scheduled to appear before it, along with his peers at Amazon, Google, and Apple, on July 27th. If the root cause of our troubles with Facebook is to be addressed, it will not be with an audit, however well intentioned. It will be in Congress.
Today in news that could affect public perception of the big tech platforms.
Trending down: Black YouTube creators are questioning why the company booted them off the YouTube Kids app. In recent years, YouTube has come under intense pressure for how it handles kids content, but some creators say their channels were removed unfairly. (Mark Bergen and Lucas Shaw / Bloomberg)
Rhode Island has opened up movie theaters, restaurants, museums, and daycare centers — not because Governor Gina Raimondo is ignoring the risks of the novel coronavirus, but because she is actually controlling for them. Raimondo has rolled out an impressive system of testing, tracing, and isolation across the state — and it’s working.
Since April, coronavirus-related deaths, hospitalizations, and infections have plummeted in American’s smallest state, according to Politico. Nearly a quarter of the state’s population has been tested to date. Raimondo also enlisted the help of US tech companies to help stop the spread of the disease. Salesforce built a contact tracing app for free, and SurveyMonkey has helped tp monitor peoples’ symptoms.
It’s worth pointing out that many of these initiatives could have — and should have — been aided by the federal government. “If the Trump administration in January had started to stockpile [personal protective equipment], get serious about testing, put together a plan, we would have far fewer deaths, far fewer people out of work, far fewer sick people,” Raimondo said. Luckily for those in Rhode Island, she took on much of this instead. — Zoe Schiffer
⭐ Facebook, Google, and Twitter may face a choice between bending to Hong Kong’s new internet law or leaving the region altogether. The tech giants already suspended requests for data from the Hong Kong government after the law was announced Monday night. Here are Jamie Tarabay and Iain Marlow from Bloomberg:
“We are absolutely headed for a showdown, and there are no indications that the Hong Kong government is particularly prepared if Facebook or another company refuses a removal request,” said James Griffiths, a journalist and author of “The Great Firewall: How to Build and Control an Alternative Version of the Internet.” “These companies appear to have realized that there is no compromise they could make that would truly satisfy Beijing or make them seem trustworthy. This could make them more willing to stand up against Chinese censorship in Hong Kong.”
While living without Facebook, Instagram and YouTube is a mundane reality in mainland China, those apps are beloved in Hong Kong. Now US tech giants must contend with an extreme, though not impossible, prospect: Will they have to leave if they refuse to comply with the draconian internet law? (Karen Chiu / Abacus)
Google abandoned plans to offer a major new cloud service in China due in part to concerns over geopolitical tensions and the pandemic. The news underlines the challenges for US tech giants trying to make it in that market. (Ryan Gallagher and Mark Bergen / Bloomberg)
ByteDance is considering changing TikTok’s corporate structure as it comes under increasing scrutiny in some of its biggest markets like India and the US. The company is discussing creating a new management board for TikTok or establishing a headquarters for the app outside of China. (Liza Lin and Shan Li / The Wall Street Journal)
Here’s what it would take to ban TikTok in the US, as the Trump administration has lightly threatened to do. The Commerce Department would have to put TikTok on the “entity list” that limits its commercial ties to US companies, which could force Apple and Google to take TikTok off the app stores. (Adi Robertson / The Verge)
TikTok took down more than 49 million videos from users across the globe for content violations during the second half of 2019. The news comes as part of the company’s first-ever transparency report, which it released Thursday morning. (Jacob Kastrenakes / The Verge)
Facebook shut down pages and accounts linked to Roger Stone and Proud Boys, a far-right group Facebook banned under its hate policies. The Trump associate’s personal Instagram account was shut down as part of the takedown. (Donie O’Sullivan, Marshall Cohen and Katelyn Polantz / CNN)
Amazon will start displaying the business names and addresses of third-party sellers on its US marketplace. The move is meant to create more transparency in Amazon’s US market and make it easier to contact sellers of counterfeit product. (Eugene Kim / Business Insider)
But: Amazon hasn’t always been great at removing posts of products that are supposed to be banned by its own rules. Unlike Facebook, Twitter, and YouTube, Amazon also won’t say how many people review content — or even whether the company has increased the size of that workforce in recent years. (Annie Gilbertson / The Markup)
Reddit moderators say the company finally appears to be listening to their calls for help fighting hate and harassment on the platform. The company’s recent move to crackdown on subreddits for hateful content came as a welcome surprise to those who’ve been advocating for such actions for years. (Suhauna Hussain / Los Angeles Times)
Microsoft researcher Josh Benaloh is working on voting software that could solve the problem of trust in secret-ballot elections. The technology, which relies on a new form of encryption, could allow ballots to be aggregated, tallied, and verified without the individual votes having to be decrypted. (Sue Halpern / The New Yorker)
The UK and Australia launched a joint probe into the controversial facial recognition company Clearview AI. The company claimed to have “scraped” more than 3 billion images from social media — which is now part of the regulators’ investigation. (Sam Shead / CNBC)
Zoom is fighting rumors circulating on social media in India that it is Chinese-owned. The misinformation started to spread after the Indian government banned 59 apps owned by Chinese firms last week. (Pranav Dixit / BuzzFeed)
⭐ Every major TikTok collective is pursuing a potential reality show. And while the recent drama between Hype House and Sway House seems like a natural fit for TV, it’s unclear whether the industry will bite. Here’s New York Times reporter Taylor Lorenz:
“We’d have a hard time selling a show about these TikTokers doing their videos for TikTok, or getting deals with advertisers,” Ms. Pizzi said. “We’re more interested in their lifestyle and how they interact with each other, what the relationships are like between the different people in the house.”
Disparate management and representation is also an issue. In some houses, each influencer has their own separate management team and sometimes different agents. “Even just for a pitch it’s an enormous amount of legal work. You have to put every single person under contract,” Ms. Pizzi said.
Microsoft launched “Together Mode” for Teams — a project it’s been working on since the pandemic began. It’s designed to create virtual live avatars of you and your colleagues to help people better engage with meetings. (Tom Warren / The Verge)
WhatsApp Business is expanding the reach and use of QR codes to let customers easily connect with businesses on the platform. It’s also giving businesses a series of stickers to kick off “we’re open for business” campaigns. (Ingrid Lunden / TechCrunch)
The leaders of the activist organization Sleeping Giants are splitting up over a dispute centered on titles, credit, and equality. Nandini Jammi said she’s leaving the organization because was not being treated as an equal by her cofounder, Matt Rivitz. Sleeping Giants is, among other things, a vocal Facebook antagonist. (Megha Rajagopalan / BuzzFeed)
The Zoom shirt is the breakout garment of quarantine season. It’s a top, typically kept on the back of the computer chair or a hanger nearby, that you can pop on in the moments before your video meeting. (Joel Stein / The New York Times)
Things to do
Stuff to occupy you online during the quarantine.
Watch Baited. Ziwe Fumudoh’s incredible series of interviews in which she tries to get mostly white people to say racist things is the funniest thing I have seen in months. (The videos are somewhat haphazardly organized, but click a few of them here and YouTube will start showing you the rest in your feed.)
Read Big Technology. The new newsletter from former BuzzFeed reporter Alex Kantrowitz just put out its first edition.