What a damning civil rights audit missed about Facebook

Technology

I.

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.

II.

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.