Facebook reportedly slammed over ‘setbacks’ in civil rights audit

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Sheryl Sandberg, Facebook COO testifies during a Senate (Select) Intelligence Committee hearing where they testified on the influence of foreign operations on social media on September 5, 2018.

Tom Williams | CQ-Roll Call Group | Getty Images

Facebook has been roundly criticized by civil rights experts in an audit due to be published later on Wednesday, according to a report from The New York Times.

The 100-page report, authored by civil rights advocate Laura Murphy and lawyer Megan Cacace, is the result of a two-year review into the social network’s approach to civil rights. According to the NYT, it found that Facebook made decisions that were “significant setbacks for civil rights.”

It comes at a particularly tense time for Facebook, which is grappling with an exodus of advertisers boycotting the tech giant over a failure to tackle the spread of hate speech and misinformation. The boycott has gained significant momentum in recent weeks, with big brands from Starbucks to Unilever pulling ads from Facebook, and represents one of the biggest crises for the company in recent years.

Facebook was not immediately available to comment when contacted by CNBC. Shares of the company — which hit a fresh record high on Tuesday despite the ad boycott — were down slightly in premarket trade.

The audit reportedly bashed Facebook’s decision to leave up a post by President Donald Trump using the phrase “when the looting starts, the shooting starts” about violent protests in Minneapolis over the death of George Floyd, an unarmed Black man. 

“After the company publicly left up the looting and shooting post, more than five political and merchandise ads have run on Facebook sending the same dangerous message that ‘looters’ and ‘Antifa terrorists’ can or should be shot by armed citizens,” the authors wrote, according to the NYT.

“The Auditors do not believe that Facebook is sufficiently attuned to the depth of concern on the issue of polarization and the way that the algorithms used by Facebook inadvertently fuel extreme and polarizing content.”

Facebook’s inaction over Trump’s comments led employees to stage a “virtual walkout” in protest of the company’s policies. The decision to keep the post up was in direct contrast to the action taken by Twitter, which slapped a warning label on a tweet containing the same remarks from Trump about looting.

According to the NYT, the audit recommends Facebook builds a more robust civil rights infrastructure and that it takes “more concrete action and specific commitments to take steps to address concerns about algorithmic bias or discrimination.”

Facebook Chief Operating Officer Sheryl Sandberg said in a blog post that the audit revealed failures in the firm’s approach to civil rights, adding “some of the starkest criticism” was “reserved for our decision not to remove recent posts by President Trump.” She called it “the beginning of the journey, not the end,” and repeated a claim that the timing of its release wasn’t linked to advertiser pressure.

“What has become increasingly clear is that we have a long way to go,” Sandberg said. “As hard as it has been to have our shortcomings exposed by experts, it has undoubtedly been a really important process for our company. We would urge companies in our industry and beyond to do the same.”

Sandberg and Facebook CEO Mark Zuckerberg were among the Facebook officials that met with civil rights leaders on Tuesday. But those civil rights leaders say the meeting didn’t go well, with Rashad Robinson of advocacy organization Color of Change labeling it a “disappointment.”

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