As NAACP kicks off boycott, Facebook says content moderation, infrastructure changes are coming in 2019

Facebook’s ongoing efforts to repair its image as a greedy, neglectful accessory to the spread of misinformation and other nefarious practices has taken a turn to civil rights and specifically how it serves non-white users, which proportionately account for the social network’s most active members.

Today — the first day of #LogOutFacebook, a week-long boycott of the service led by the NAACP — Facebook published an update to its ongoing civil rights audit, where it laid out some goals for the year ahead. In 2019, it said it plans to address censorship and discrimination in its content moderation; and it’s also working on a “Civil Rights Accountability Infrastructure,” in which civil rights are put front and center in the development of new products and policies.

“We take this incredibly seriously, as demonstrated by the investments we’ve made in safety and security,” noted COO Sheryl Sandberg in a blog post introducing the update to the audit. “We know we need to do more.”

But as has been the case with Facebook on a number of occasions in recent times, its contrition appears too little too late.

The NAACP — which has called on like-minded groups and individuals to join it in its campaign — has built up a strong list of grievances against the social network, which now has around 2 billion users. They range from ongoing issues around a lack of diversity in its workforce and the fact that the company has not taken strong-enough measures to safeguard users’ privacy in breaches, through to more recent developments. Just yesterday, two reports commissioned by the Senate Intelligence Committee found that Russia-backed organizations specifically targeted African Americans on the Facebook platform in their misinformation campaigns.

“Facebook’s engagement with partisan firms, its targeting of political opponents, the spread of misinformation and the utilization of Facebook for propaganda promoting disingenuous portrayals of the African American community is reprehensible,” said Derrick Johnson, NAACP president and CEO, in a statement.

As part of the announcement of the boycott, the NAACP also said that it had returned a donation Facebook had made to its organization.

Facebook itself didn’t make specific reference to the NAACP statements, nor to the boycott, in its audit update. Led by Laura Murphy, who had previously worked for the ACLU, the audit — which kicked off in May of this year — provides a summary of the work she and her team have been doing for the last six months. It has included taking a bird’s-eye view of the state of the company today, and engagement with outside stakeholders and Facebook itself to assemble a list of priorities that need to be addressed.

There is, she writes, “no question that Facebook faces a number of serious civil rights challenges… To be clear, the civil right groups that are raising these concerns are pro-technology but firmly anti-bias; moreover, they are concerned about the impact of the platform on public discourse and the institutions that are the foundation of American democracy.”

The list of areas that have been identified to address is long and a reminder of how many shortcomings there are on the platform. As Murphy lays it out, these include voter suppression tactics; accountability infrastructure; content moderation; advertising targeting; diversity and inclusion among employees; taking out bias from AI and algorithms; privacy and transparency. 

As we’ve seen over the last several months, the company has already started to take some steps ahead in areas like AI, transparency, advertising and trying to improve practices around elections and inclusion in its own ranks. But as you can see from recent reports, and this week’s boycott, there is still a long way for the social network to go.