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Facebook slammed in audit for 'heartbreaking decisions' that set back civil rights

The social network's commitment to civil rights is questioned after a two-year review.

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An 89-page report released Wednesday questions Facebook's commitment to tackling civil right challenges. 

Angela Lang/CNET

Despite improvements to its platform, Facebook has made "vexing and heartbreaking decisions" with "real world consequences that are serious setbacks for civil rights," says an independent audit of the social network's practices and policies, released Wednesday. 

The 89-page report, led by civil right experts Laura Murphy and Megan Cacace and conducted with Facebook's cooperation, questions the social network's commitment to tackling civil rights challenges, calling the company's approach "too reactive and piecemeal." Though the company has made improvements, the authors say, the pace and scope of Facebook's changes has failed to adequately address issues such as discrimination, online hate and promoting inclusion.

"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," Murphy writes in an introduction. "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 final report of the audit comes just a day after Facebook executives, including CEO Mark Zuckerberg, met virtually with civil rights activists behind a growing advertising boycott of the world's largest social network. Organizers of the boycott complained the meeting was "disappointing" and expressed concerns that Facebook isn't doing enough to combat hate speech.

The boycott and the report are bound to increase pressure on Facebook, which has been used to spread hate speech and organize extremist groups. Hate speech on Facebook helped fuel the 2017 genocide of Rohingya Muslims in Myanmar, and a gunman used the social network to livestream the 2019 mosque shootings that killed 51 people in Christchurch, New Zealand.

Facebook was also used to spread conspiracy theories and misinformation in the wake of the police killing of George Floyd, a 46-year-old Black man in Minneapolis whose death sparked nationwide protests about police brutality and racial justice. Some of the misinformation popped up in private Facebook groups that are harder to moderate.

Facebook COO Sheryl Sandberg said the audit marked the beginning of the social network's efforts, not the end. Sandberg has been central to the company's civil rights efforts and leads its civil rights task force.

"There are no quick fixes to these issues -- nor should there be," Sandberg wrote in a blog post. "What has become increasingly clear is that we have a long way to go."

Civil rights groups gave Facebook for undertaking the two-year audit, but said the findings were unsurprising. Civil rights problems remain widespread, they said, urging Facebook to address them in order to protect vulnerable communities and the country's democracy. 

"The civil rights community remains united in our commitment to pressing Facebook to address outstanding problems and to do so urgently given what is at stake," the Leadership Conference on Civil and Human Rights, a coalition of more than 220 national organizations, said in a statement. "As long as the platform is being weaponized to spread hate and violence, harm vulnerable communities, and undermine our democracy, we will continue to hold the platform accountable."

The report blistered with criticism of Facebook for prioritizing free expression over civil rights concerns such as equality and nondiscrimination. It raised concerns over the social network's policy of treating speech by politicians as exempt from rules other users are required to follow.

"Elevating free expression is a good thing, but it should apply to everyone," the report said. "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."

The authors specifically cited Facebook's decision to allow three posts by President Donald Trump to stand as causing "considerable alarm." The auditors said they vigorously disagreed with the company's decisions about the posts. 

In the wake of the George Floyd protests, Trump posted that "when the looting starts, the shooting starts," a comment that Facebook deemed didn't violate its rules. The company also let two posts about mail-in voting stand despite containing false claims. Rival Twitter has begun labeling such posts. 

The report focused on seven areas of Facebook's operations, including the company's civil rights accountability structure, content moderation and election-related issues. 

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