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Facebook's Unchecked Power Endangers Civil Rights

If Mark Zuckerberg truly believes in giving everyone a voice, the company must integrate a power, race, and social analysis into its policies and their enforcement.

by Gaurav Laroia, Carmen Scurato

Whether by accident or design, Facebook's massive scale and reach have made the online platform part of the world's social fabric. But behind its network of 2.6-billion regular users lurk algorithms specifically created to amplify divisive content and drive people apart. Add to that mix a lax enforcement of Facebook's own Community Standards and you have a toxic recipe for spreading hate speech, disinformation, and propaganda.

Facebook has allowed itself to become a tool for white supremacists and other hate groups to recruit others to join violent and hateful causes, bleeding odious and dangerous ideologies from the internet into the real world.

As the House Committee on the Judiciary prepares to grill the CEOs of Alphabet (the parent company of Google), Amazon, Apple, and Facebook on antitrust issues today, members of Congress need to examine how Facebook's influence, reach, and power have undermined our democracy.

By prioritizing profits and growth over every other social value, executives at Facebook have treated real-world harms and violence as nothing more than PR problems that must be managed.

A prime example is when the U.N. found that Facebook played a "determining role" in the genocide of Rohingya Muslims in Myanmar. The company's response? A blog post that promised to do a better job next time. In the words of Roger McNamee—a Facebook critic who was an early investor and adviser to the company—Facebook has repeatedly shown a "cultural indifference" to the consequences of its harms.

In that same vein, Facebook's civil-rights audit, completed earlier this month, noted how the company has repeatedly made "devastating errors" in its moderation and enforcement against hateful content. The report juxtaposes recommendations from civil-rights groups designed to protect marginalized communities with Facebook's decisions to undercut its own policies in favor of the interests of powerful politicians.

In response to these and other criticisms, Mark Zuckerberg has repeated a favorite mantra in defense of his narrow concept of free expression—as if repeating simplistic views about speech will erase the reality that marginalized communities have never fully experienced these freedoms. Allowing speech of the powerful to remain unchecked, in violation of Facebook's own terms of service, often chills the free speech of women, LGBTQIA+ people, and people of color who fear they will be harassed or violently targeted if they speak out.

If Zuckerberg truly believes in giving everyone a voice, the company must integrate a power, race, and social analysis into its policies and their enforcement. Without such an analysis, Facebook will continue to amplify the powerful and silence and sideline the powerless under the guise of protecting speech for all.

The Stop Hate For Profit campaign has led to nearly 2,000 companies pausing advertising on Facebook and Instagram to try and force Zuckerberg to put words into action. Media Matters reports that nine additional companies—including Walmart, Facebook’s second-biggest advertiser in 2019—quietly paused advertising in July. Just these nine accounted for $335 million of Facebook's advertising revenue in 2019.

Zuckerberg told staff in early July that no new changes were coming as a result of the boycott and that he didn't want to be seen as capitulating to the demands of advertisers and racial-justice advocates. But a commitment to rid Facebook of the harms it's doing to our democracy and people across the world isn't capitulating. It's just the right thing to do.

Clear action steps to mitigate hate online have been available to Facebook for years. In 2018, a coalition of civil-rights and social-justice groups, including Free Press, crafted Change the Terms—a set of model corporate policies designed to curb hate on online platforms. Facebook has made incremental changes that seemingly align with the recommendations, but they're not nearly enough.

As we noted in our 2019 report, Facebook's "enforcement of its current policies remains lackluster, with the company making its decisions in an inconsistent and sporadic manner." This assessment is just as true today. Though its policies continue to evolve, the company still hasn't committed to equitably enforcing them.

Facebook insists that its new independent Oversight Board will be the answer to its content-moderation problem, yet news about the board's limited scope and power keep trickling out. The concept of an Oversight Board is meaningless if Facebook's internal procedures and policies are opaque and result in disparate impacts for marginalized communities across the globe. The board's silence on pressing issues like Trump's calls for police violence against racial-justice protesters shows how toothless this new entity is proving to be.

Members of Congress must ensure that Zuckerberg answers for Facebook's failure to curb hate, a failure that's endangering the lives of millions of people. The economic case against technology titans will be laid out next week. Congress must pursue the moral case against them too.

Gaurav Laroia is Senior Policy Counsel for Free Press.

Carmen Scurato is Senior Policy Counsel at Free Press.

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