Blistering civil rights audit raises alarms about Facebook’s ongoing policy failures

The results of a multiyear investigation into Facebook’s policies and their consequences for the civil liberties of its more than 2.5 billion users are out.

The audit, conducted by former ACLU director Laura W. Murphy and lawyers from law firm Relman Colfax set out by collecting concerns from a broad swath of civil rights organizations concerned about Facebook’s growing power and its potentially harmful reverberations through marginalized communities in particular and democratic society more broadly. The auditors also used concerns from some lawmakers, who have become increasingly critical of Facebook since the 2016 U.S. election, to steer their investigation. The ultimate goal of the project was to “make sure important civil rights laws and principles are respected, embraced and robustly incorporated” into the social network.

As the report notes, the audit doesn’t situate Facebook’s decisions in the context of it competitors, instead evaluating the company’s behavior on its own. The approach is useful, because social media companies often get a pass for behavior that’s standard in the industry, an approach that lowers standards across the board rather than looking at real-world impacts. The auditors make a point of giving Facebook credit for its cooperation in the audit, which the company itself undertook with pressure from outside groups concerned about its failings on issues like race-based hate, misinformation, voter suppression and extremism.

While the report has its positive moments of giving credit where credit is due, the auditors found that Facebook’s progress on civil rights issues has had many one step forward, two steps back moments over the last two years. Any sense of optimism about the company’s progress is tempered by frustration about Facebook’s policy missteps at the very top.

“While the audit process has been meaningful and has led to some significant improvements in the platform, we have also watched the company make painful decisions over the last nine months with real world consequences that are serious setbacks for civil rights,” the auditors wrote.

As far as positive decisions go, they cite Facebook’s progress on changing policy in discriminatory housing and employment ads, expanded voter suppression policies, census interference prevention measures, more frequent meetings with civil rights leaders and changes to content moderation policies, like its prohibition of praise for white nationalism that went into effect last year.

In spite of some progress, the auditors say they still have a number of concerns. Specifically, they called for Facebook to implement its voter suppression policies more aggressively leading into the 2020 U.S. election, citing President Trump’s ominous false claims about voting in the 2020 election, which went untouched on the platform.

Facebook’s enforcement of its policies against white nationalism and white separatism (terms mostly synonymous with white supremacy) were also an area of concern, with the auditors calling for the company to forbid this kind of content even if it doesn’t use those terms specifically. The chalked some of these failures up to the company’s policies being “too reactive and piecemeal” rather than coherent, a statement that anyone paying attention to the company’s recent decisions can certainly relate to.

The audit cites a number of specific moments as failures for Facebook’s policies, including Nick Clegg’s deeply controversial assertion last year that politicians wouldn’t be subject to the company’s already shaky fact-checking program, a decision widely denounced by civil rights leaders and Facebook’s other critics for giving people in power “more freedom on the platform to make false, voter suppressive and divisive statements than the average user.”

Mark Zuckerberg’s Georgetown speech last October enshrining a very narrow and contentious conception of free speech at the expense of everything else was another major moment of departure for Facebook from its stated commitment to civil rights, the auditors write. “The prioritization of free expression over all other values, such as equality and nondiscrimination, is deeply troubling.”

Facebook’s decision to this day to not reverse its course on posts from Trump that intentionally mislead the public about voting (in one he baselessly claimed vote-by-mail systems are “fraudulent”) also remains an ongoing source of frustration, undermining the company’s progress. The auditors wrote that they are confounded about why the company “has failed to grasp the urgency” of robust policy enforcement with fewer than five months to go before the U.S. presidential election, concluding that Facebook’s decision to keep the Trump posts up shows that civil rights and voting integrity fall far behind its expedient interpretation of free expression on the company’s list of values.

“This report outlines a number of positive and consequential steps that the company has taken, but at this point in history, the Auditors are concerned that those gains could be obscured by the vexing and heartbreaking decisions Facebook has made that represent significant setbacks for civil rights,” the report states.

The bits of the audit we’ve touched on here only scratch the surface of a fairly comprehensive and often clarifying examination of a complex company’s often troubling policy decisions, so we’ve embedded the full Facebook civil rights audit document below.