Damning civil rights audit finds Facebook's policy decisions 'vexing and heartbreaking'

“Elevating free expression is a good thing, but it should apply to everyone. 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.”

Civil rights auditors, in a report


Today Facebook published the final report of its two-year deep civil rights audit, along with a blog post by COO Sheryl Sandberg entitled “Making Progress on Civil Rights – But Still a Long Way to Go.” The conclusions drawn by the audit are damning for Facebook, especially in their condemnation of the company’s fact-checking policies for politicians.

Unsurprisingly, the company’s press release about the report looks at it with very kind eyes. Facebook is hoping its users don’t take the time to read the 86-page report in full.

In her statement about the audit, Sandberg spends a meandering seven paragraphs explaining the audit and speaking to Facebook’s commitment to bettering itself in the future. This section of the post includes broad statements such as “Facebook stands firmly against hate.” The company's repeated inaction in the face of harmful content, though, sends a very different message.

Here are the auditors’ concerns Sandberg eventually highlights:

  • Facebook needs to enhance the team and the processes it’s put in place to oversee civil rights issues.
  • Facebook needs to go much further in addressing voter suppression and hate. Specifically, auditors say Facebook’s response to Trump’s mail-in ballot misinformation wasn’t strong enough. Auditors also recommended that Facebook do more to understand the specific ways that hate is targeted at particular communities.
  • Facebook did not respond strongly enough to recent hateful posts by President Trump. The auditors also strongly disagree with Facebook’s policy to not fact-check politicians, and believe that the end result means more voice for those in positions of power.
  • Overall, Facebook needs to include more diversity in its ranks.

The audit report — which is dedicated solely to the core Facebook app — is detailed and far-reaching. It acknowledges the work Facebook has done to make its network a safer place, but it also holds nothing back in disparaging the company’s lax policies around hate speech and misinformation. The auditors say they’re “concerned that those gains could be obscured by the vexing and heartbreaking decisions Facebook has made that represent significant setbacks for civil rights.”

Sandberg says Facebook still has “a long way to go,” and she couldn’t be more correct.

What Sandberg leaves out — Sandberg does a relatively good job of summarizing the auditors’ main concerns, but there’s much her post oversimplifies or skirts around.

Sandberg drastically downplays the auditors’ concerns around Facebook’s refusal to fact-check politicians. Given that this has consistently been one of critics’ biggest criticisms of Facebook in the last year or so, it’s a pretty massive topic to downplay.

The auditors speak specifically to how, between September and October 2019, CEO Mark Zuckerberg and VP of Global Affairs Nick Clegg each made statements about how Facebook would continue to exempt politicians from its third-party fact-checking. Both also announced that Facebook would treat politicians’ statements as newsworthy and therefore would not interfere unless outweighed by the risk of harm.

“Mark Zuckerberg’s speech and Nick Clegg’s announcements deeply impacted our civil rights work and added new challenges to reining in voter suppression,” the auditors state. “With less than five months before a presidential election, it confounds the auditors as to why Facebook has failed to grasp the urgency of interpreting existing policies to make them effective against suppression and ensuring that their enforcement tools are as effective as possible.”

Sandberg also fails to mention the auditors’ specific concerns over white nationalist and white separatist groups on Facebook. The auditors call on Facebook to do more than just ban white supremacists — they say the company should also “also prohibit express praise, support and representation of white separatism and white nationalism even where the terms themselves are not used.”

Lastly — but certainly not least — Sandberg leaves out the auditors’ worries over algorithmic bias on Facebook. The auditors suggest that Facebook take serious action to address algorithmic discrimation on the company’s platform.

What now? — In her post, Sandberg states that Facebook is “making new commitments today.” It’s not clear what these commitments might be; Sandberg doesn’t make any announcements about initiatives or new protections the company is taking based on the report.

Meanwhile, Facebook’s meeting this week with organizers of the #StopHateForProfit ad boycott proved entirely unfruitful, according to those involved. Going into the meeting, Facebook would have known the damning report’s contents — and still the company reportedly showed no remorse and instead just repeated old talking points.

Based on this audit alone, it’s excessively clear that Facebook needs to do way more than just increase moderation efforts or build a more diverse workforce. Facebook needs to completely reexamine the priorities and values that have turned it into a place of hate and misinformation. To say there's a "long way to go" is really something of an understatement here.