Pixel Envy

Written by Nick Heer.

Auditors Hired by Facebook Highlight Decisions That ‘Represent Significant Setbacks for Civil Rights’

Elizabeth Dwoskin and Cat Zakrzewski, Washington Post:

The conclusions by Facebook’s own auditors are likely to bolster criticism that the company has too much power and that it bends and stretches its rules for powerful people. Though Facebook frequently says it listens to experts when making judgment calls, the auditors found that is not always the case on critical matters of free expression.

“When you put free expression on top of every other consideration, I think civil rights considerations take more of a back seat,” said Laura Murphy, a civil rights lawyer and independent consultant who led the two-year audit. Murphy worked with a team from civil rights law firm Relman Colfax, led by partner Megan Cacace.

The auditors’ report (PDF) is an extraordinary document. Murphy’s team found numerous instances where civil rights of oft-oppressed groups of users were overruled by the company’s ostensible dedication to free expression, either because it felt that a post was okay to remain live or the company was slow to react. Facebook is under no obligation to retain anything posted to its website, and it has bent its policies specifically to favour discriminatory practices of a loud conservative faction.

Casey Newton and Zoe Schiffer, the Verge:

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.

Pema Levy, Mother Jones:

As Mother Jones reported last year, Facebook resisted advocates’ efforts to address discrimination issues on the platform or a long time, including calls for such an audit. But after a series of high profile public relations crises — the Cambridge Analytica scandal revealing improperly obtained user data was used to target voters, Russia’s use of the platform to help elect Trump, the product’s role in sparking a genocide in Myanmar — Facebook agreed to a civil rights audit in 2018.

But just a few months later, the New York Times reported that Facebook had hired a Republican opposition research firm to discredit its critics, including Color of Change, one civil rights organizations that had lobbied for the audit. The firm, Definers Public Affairs, had sought to tie the non-profit to billionaire philanthropist George Soros, whose status as a rightwing boogeyman often carries the tinge of anti-Semitism. Facebook had not only gone after a civil rights group, but it had done so by fueling the type of bigotry that civil rights groups trying to get off the platform.

Levy is referring to this Times article; the same day it was published, Facebook cut ties with Definers Public Affairs.

Charlie Warzel of the Times interviewed Rashad Robinson, executive director of Color of Change, about this audit:

You were instrumental in pushing Facebook for a public civil rights audit. What’s your reaction to the audit?

The audit speaks to just how much Facebook’s incentive structure is broken. I keep thinking about the fact that the decisions around political speech and violations to rules goes through the team at the company that is the most political — who are in charge of dealing with lobbyists and Washington operators like Joel Kaplan [Facebook’s vice president of global public policy and a former Republican staffer and lobbyist].

And so then they consistently say things to me like, “Well, you just don’t like Republicans.” And I say, “I don’t think these issues should go through anyone who is primarily a political animal and operates inside D.C. politics.” I won’t pretend there are two equal sides of the issue. Joel Kaplan has political leanings that would make it harder for my grandfather to vote. And so if you put him in charge of voter suppression content, that’s an issue.

The audit report is not particularly dense but it is lengthy; set aside a solid hour if you’d like to churn through it. Robinson, though — he gets it, because of course he does — and it is absolutely worth your time to read his reaction in its entirety. Much credit and appreciation go to Color of Change and the many activists who pushed for this audit.