Nonprofits Unimpressed With Facebook’s Civil Rights Audit

Facebook released a civil rights audit of the platform the day after 32 nonprofits wrote a letter, also released to the public, protesting the social media giant’s “role in generating bigotry and hatred toward vulnerable communities.”

The organizations say that despite in some cases years of engagement with Facebook, “civil rights, privacy and safety problems” persist on the site.

“Facebook has taken relatively little action commensurate with the action on the site,” said Scott Simpson, public advocacy director ofMuslim Advocates, one of the organizations that led the development of the letter. The groups signing the letter wrote: “Though Facebook has had significant time, opportunity and the benefit of input from experts and advocacy groups to address the problems on the platform, your company chose to target civil rights groups and our allies instead of changing the way you do business.”

The organizations also complained that Facebook hired an opposition research firm, Definers Public Affairs, to investigate those who criticized the company for use of the platform in allegedly helping to spread Russian misinformation and providing user data to the now-defunct Cambridge Analytica.

Facebook Chief Operating Officer Sheryl Sandberg wrote as an introduction to the report that “Civil rights are core to American values of equality, dignity and freedom from discrimination. Advancing civil rights benefits all of us and is what we stand for as a people.” Sandberg also wrote: “Facebook is committed to working with leading U.S. civil rights organizations to strengthen and advance civil rights on our service. They’ve raised a number of important concerns, and I’m grateful for their candor and guidance. We know that we need to do more: to listen, look deeper and take action to respect fundamental rights.”

It is a contention with which the letter signers disagreed. “The audit shows things are as bad as we expected them to be,” said Simpson. In the letter, the coalition also accused Facebook of seeking to “deflect criticism and discredit advocates by exploiting anti-Semitic campaigns against philanthropist George Soros.”

Cited in the letter was Facebook’s alleged inaccurate information that Soros funded certain organizations involved in an anti-Facebook movement. The organizations also want Facebook to apologize to organizations targeted by Definers of Public Affairs, removal of Facebook’s vice president of global public affairs, and making all findings of the civil right audit public.

The organizations want Facebook Chairman and CEO Mark Zuckerberg and Sandberg to step down from their board seats as long as they are involved in senior operations positions. The signers want the board expanded to add three seats for more diversity, and a permanent civil rights ombudsman. Issues those involved in the audit included: Voter suppression; accountability infrastructure; content moderation and enforcement; advertising targeting and practices; diversity and inclusion; fairness in artificial intelligence and algorithms; privacy; and, transparency. The report outlined steps taken by Facebook in regard to those areas, particularly in the run-up to the 2018 mid-term election.

The signers believe the report doesn’t really deal with their issues. “Muslim Advocates and our partners demanded this audit in 2017. Laura Murphy’s thorough preliminary report makes clear that Facebook has done little to meaningfully address the bigotry and discrimination that pervades its platform. Sheryl Sandberg’s introduction indicates a lack of understanding that, after years and years of abuse, significant reforms are urgently needed now,” said Madihha Ahussain, special counsel for anti-Muslim bigotry at Muslim Advocates in Oakland, Calif. “We stand by our letter demanding serious changes to Facebook’s board. The board is not in a position to hold its management accountable, it doesn’t match the demographics of its user community, and it doesn’t understand civil rights and serious reforms to it are necessary to protect vulnerable communities.”

NAACP also was a signer of the letter and was likewise unimpressed by the audit. “It’s interesting that Facebook released this civil rights audit on the same day that the NAACP launched, #LogOutFacebook. It’s also curious that just a week ago, it was reported that Facebook hired deeply partisan strategy firms to conduct opposition research calling into question the notion that this company operates with a non-partisan view,” said Derrick Johnson, president of the NAACP.

“For us, this is not about reports, it is about taking real steps to ensure that the social media platforms under the umbrella of this company are not co-opted by bad agents to spread misinformation and further disenfranchise people of color. We cannot pay lip service to issues that directly impact and affect us. For millions of African-Americans and people of color, the results of the 2016 election have been detrimental to our very livelihood,” Johnson said via a statement.