A team of civil rights auditors has delivered a scathing and unexpected indictment of Facebook’s recent moderation choices after a two-year examination of the platform’s practices and internal policies.
“While the audit process has been meaningful and has led to some significant improvements in the platform,” the report reads, “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.”
Published on Wednesday, the auditors’ final report is the result of an independent investigation by civil rights lawyers, conducted with Facebook’s active assistance. That investigation has produced two previous reports that examined voter suppression and algorithmic discrimination. Facebook agreed to undertake the audit and make the reports public after significant pressure from activist groups.
“Elevating free expression is a good thing, but it should apply to everyone.”
In the final report, the auditors give Facebook credit for expanding policies against voter suppression and census interference. But according to the report, that progress has been offset by “the vexing and heartbreaking decisions Facebook has made that represent significant setbacks for civil rights.”
The audit also pushes Facebook for stronger interpretations and enforcement of those policies ahead of the 2020 election as well as more direct action against algorithmic bias and organized hate against Jews, Muslims, and other targeted groups.
Facebook did not respond to a request for comment on how it will respond to the audit’s recommendations. The company has committed to hiring a full-time civil rights position to its policy team and has launched a separate oversight board that will independently review moderation decisions. But beyond those efforts, Facebook has made few commitments relating to the enforcement of civil rights on its platform.
In particular, auditors found that Facebook’s moderation of US President Donald Trump’s use of the platform has undermined its broader civil rights efforts. The auditors singled out three Trump posts from May — including one that was taken down by Twitter for inciting violence — all of which Facebook allowed to stand without moderator action.
“These decisions exposed a major hole in Facebook’s understanding and application of civil rights,” the auditors write in the report. “While these decisions were made ultimately at the highest level, we believe civil rights expertise was not sought and applied to the degree it should have been and the resulting decisions were devastating. Our fear was (and continues to be) that these decisions establish terrible precedent for others to emulate.”
Subsequent reporting from The Washington Post has found that Zuckerberg was involved in the decision to leave the posts up. After a personal call from Trump, Zuckerberg found that the posts did not violate Facebook policies.
But while leaving the posts up spared Facebook from the immediate political backlash, auditors worry the resulting precedent could encourage voter suppression around the world. “Elevating free expression is a good thing,” the report reads, “but it should apply to everyone.”
The report comes amid an ongoing boycott by Facebook advertisers, which takes issue with many of the same decisions detailed in the report. On Tuesday, boycott organizers met with Zuckerberg and other Facebook executives, but they came away frustrated by the platform’s apparent unwillingness to implement policy changes. One organizer described the meeting as “long on time but short on commitments.”
Civil rights groups have raised similar concerns about the audit report, calling on Facebook to commit to affirmative changes in response to the published recommendations.
“This audit is illuminating,” said Muslim Advocates Executive Director Farhana Khera, who had previously called for the report’s release, “but it is ultimately meaningless if Facebook does not agree to take dramatic and substantial steps to address the many failures outlined in the report. Unfortunately, Facebook continues to resist that change.”