Facebook blasted by dozens of civil rights groups for 'generating bigotry'

A coalition of civil rights organization slammed Facebook for "generating hatred and bigotry" in a Tuesday letter addressed to CEO and chairman Mark Zuckerberg.

The open letter – signed by 31 different groups, including Muslim Advocates, MoveOn, CREDO, MomsRising, the National LGBTQ Task Force, United We Dream, and Million Hoodies Movement for Justice – hits the tech giant for failing to heed repeated warnings about hate speech and groups that harness the ubiquitous social network to stoke religious, racial or political resentment.

"We asked you to take immediate action to stop abuse on the platform. Recent news demonstrates, however, that Facebook was not only looking the other way in response to our concerns but also has been actively working to undermine efforts by those who seek to hold the company responsible for abuses on the platform," the letter states.

The line above is a reference to Facebook's hiring of a GOP-tied firm that, among other things, looked into whether liberal financier George Soros was shorting the company's stock after he labeled the tech giant a "menace" in a speech early this year. According to critics, the firm, Definers Public Affairs, used anti-Semitic tropes to target Soros.

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"Out of your need to treat those leveling legitimate critiques against Facebook as your enemies, you jeopardized the safety and security of people who have dedicated their lives to the common good," the letter says. "This decision crossed all lines of common decency."

The letter demands a series of major changes at the Menlo Park, Calif.-based company, including that Zuckerberg and Facebook's COO Sheryl Sandberg both step down from the board of directors as long as they retain their current titles; that the company expand its board by at least three members to "reflect the diversity" of its 2.2 billion active monthly users; and that the board appoint an independent and permanent civil rights ombudsman, who would also serve as a board member, to "conduct consistent and ongoing reviews of the civil rights implications of Facebook's policies and practices."

On Tuesday, Sandberg released an update on the tech giant's civil rights audit, which the COO said is one of her top priorities for 2019 and very important to her. The ongoing audit has been helmed by Laura Murphy, a prominent D.C. civil rights and civil liberties leader.

The civil rights audit update, which states that Murphy's team has spent hundreds of hours meeting with advocates from communities representing 90 different organizations, is primarily a look back at previously announced policy changes and updates from 2018 to address civil society groups' concerns about voter suppression, content moderation and enforcement, advertising, algorithmic bias, privacy, transparency, accountability and diversity.

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"We have witnessed some progress and tangible results, including policy changes, improvements to enforcement, and greater transparency in certain areas," Murphy, who worked for 17 years as the ACLU's legislative office director, says in the update. "Facebook has sought to deepen its engagement with the civil rights community through this process."

For 2019, Facebook plans to focus first on making more progress in the areas of content moderation, which the company has said will be an area that is always being worked on, and creating a "civil rights accountability infrastructure" to "ensure that the changes it is making are systemic" so that civil rights issues are considered on the front end as Facebook rolls out new products, features and policies.

Still, civil rights advocates pushed back hard on the audit update and said they expect much more from Zuckerberg's social network.

"Muslim Advocates and our partners demanded this audit in 2017. Laura Murphy's thorough preliminary report makes clear that Facebook has done little to meaningfully address the bigotry and discrimination that pervades its platform. Sheryl Sandberg's introduction indicates a lack of understanding that, after years and years of abuse, significant reforms are urgently needed now," said Muslim Advocates' special counsel for anti-Muslim bigotry, Madihha Ahussain, in a statement.

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Ahussain continued: "We stand by our letter demanding serious changes to Facebook's board. The board is not in a position to hold its management accountable, it doesn't match the demographics of its user community, and it doesn't understand civil rights and serious reforms to it are necessary to protect vulnerable communities."

"This report is long on excuses and short on meaningful progress. It is not enough to merely identify the many challenges that we have explained to Facebook. It is hard to take seriously a paper-thin promise without a timeline, benchmarks or accountability mechanism," said a statement from Color of Change, a racial justice organization that met with Sandberg amidst the Definers controversy.

Color of Change continues to demand a C-Suite level "Chief User Advocate" who would work in close consultation with civil rights groups, a public report with recommendations and a timeline for implementation, the creation of a public-facing board committee or task force that has all the resources needed to implement any changes from the audit, and the release of all documents produced by Definers Public Affairs and other firms used to undermine the credibility of civil rights organizations.

In a pair of reports released this week and prepared for the U.S. Senate, Facebook was faulted for allowing a massive Russia-led campaign that sowed racial and political discord in the U.S., systematically targeted African-Americans and tried to recruit them as "assets" in the years before the 2016 presidential election.

At the conclusion of the post, Murphy notes that Facebook plans to issue another civil rights audit update in 2019.

Separately, the NAACP returned a monetary donation from Facebook and called on users to log out of the social network and the other platforms it owns on Tuesday because of the company's "engagement with partisan firms, its targeting of political opponents, the spread misinformation and the utilization of Facebook for propaganda promoting disingenuous portrayals of the African American community."