Back in 2018, Facebook commissioned a civil rights audit of its platforms, in order to "strengthen and advance civil rights on our service" and improve its overall policy approach. At that time, Facebook was seeking to address, in particular, concerns that its ad targeting tools could be used for discriminatory purpose, including voter suppression and racial exclusion, both of which had been highlighted by independent investigations.
Back in 2018, Facebook had no idea that such an effort would become a critical focus two years later - and now, in the midst of the Facebook ads boycott, lead by a coalition of civil rights groups in response to the platform's inaction to address hate speech, the final report of Facebook's civil rights audit has been released.
And it is not overly favorable with respect to Facebook's approach.
The report raises several significant criticisms of Facebook's policies, including:
- Allowing harm and divisive rhetoric - The report's authors express 'significant concern' about the company's approach to comments made by political leaders, and leaving them up on the platform, even if they break the rules. "The prioritization of free expression over all other values, such as equality and non-discrimination, is deeply troubling to the Auditors."
- Failure to address voter suppression tactics - The report notes that Facebook's failure to address voter suppression tactics, specifically within comments posted by politicians, could have significant impacts in certain communities
- Lack of representation in leadership - The report says that Facebook has no one in its senior leadership ranks with expertise in civil rights, a significant gap in policy development.
- The need to create a more diverse and more inclusive culture - The report also highlights the need for Facebook to take more decisive steps in developing a more inclusive approach, generally.
These are the key areas the report highlights as requiring immediate attention - but more the recommendations themselves, the report also delivers some scorching assessments of Facebook's current stances.
On the company's refusal to address troubling comments made by political leaders:
"Elevating free expression is a good thing, but it should apply to everyone. 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."
And on voter suppression:
"While Facebook has built a robust mechanism to actively root out foreign actors running coordinated campaigns to interfere with America’s democratic processes, 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."
In fact, the recent comments of President Trump - which are also what sparked the advertiser boycott - are a key point of focus here, despite the report being conducted over the last two years.
"Facebook’s failure to remove the Trump voting-related posts and close enforcement gaps seems to reflect a statement of values that protecting free expression is more important than other stated company values."
The report specifically criticizes Facebook's decision not to remove Trump's comments, which "have caused considerable alarm for the Auditors and the civil rights community."
"One post allowed the propagation of hate/violent speech and two facilitated voter suppression. In all three cases Facebook asserted that the posts did not violate its Community Standards. The Auditors vigorously made known our disagreement, as we believed that these posts clearly violated Facebook’s policies. These decisions exposed a major hole in Facebook’s understanding and application of civil rights."
In essence, the report says that, while Facebook has made progress in improving its approach to civil rights, its stances on these most recent events have largely undone any meaningful development, and shown that there are still significant gaps in its policies and approach which need to be addressed.
The report also makes this nascent point:
"Ironically, Facebook has no qualms about reining in speech by the proponents of the anti-vaccination movement, or limiting misinformation about COVID -19, but when it comes to voting, 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 of interpreting existing policies to make them effective against suppression and ensuring that their enforcement tools are as effective as possible."
This is a point that we've made previously - Facebook, on COVID-19 misinformation in particular, has taken an especially hard-line, and has implemented a range of rules and bans in order to significantly restrict the spread of such. Those efforts, along with the ban on anti-vax content, show that Facebook could to more, if it chose, to address all forms of misinformation - yet, at the same time, reports have shown that Facebook has actively sought to exempt climate change misinformation from the same tough stances, and its inaction on political misinformation has been widely discussed.
Facebook could do more. It's chosen not to. That's an important distinction to make - especially when you consider the reported impact that such had on the 2016 US Presidential Election.
In the company's response to the report, Facebook COO Sheryl Sandberg says that Facebook has made significant advances on many of these elements, while acknowledging it still has a way to go.
"This audit has been a deep analysis of how we can strengthen and advance civil rights at every level of our company - but it is the beginning of the journey, not the end. What has become increasingly clear is that we have a long way to go. As hard as it has been to have our shortcomings exposed by experts, it has undoubtedly been a really important process for our company."
Sandberg says that Facebook has improved engagement with civil rights leaders, and is working to address concerns with voter suppression (through its new Voting Information Center program) and cultural representation within the company.
But its policy approaches - and in particular, the way the company has handled comments from President Trump - needs more assessment.
"We must go further on voter suppression and hate. In the auditors’ view, our voter suppression policies have improved significantly, but their application, most notably in relation to President Trump’s recent statements about mail-in-ballots, demonstrates a reading of our policies that is too narrow. They’ve also recommended that we do more to understand the specific ways that hate is targeted at particular communities so that we can address potential trends, policy gaps or enforcement issues."
The report's recommendations are clear, but it's difficult to see them leading to any significant change at this point. Thus far, Facebook CEO Mark Zuckerberg has stuck to his guns, despite rising protests - despite, even, the company losing billions in ad dollars as a result of its approach to comments from President Trump.
Virtually all of its outside guidance has suggested that Facebook should take more action on such, yet Zuck and Co. have refused.
Will this audit be any different?
If Facebook really wants to show that it's taking such commitment seriously, then there are some key points that need to be addressed - but we'll have to wait and see how Facebook moves on such.
But the way forward is clear, based on its own commissioned report. Now, we wait on the next update.