Civil rights leaders are still fed up with Facebook over hate speech

By Shirin Ghaffary

Facebook CEO Mark Zuckerberg.
Civil rights leaders say that Mark Zuckerberg isn’t doing enough to stop the spread of hate speech on Facebook.
Drew Angerer/Getty Images

Civil rights leaders are fed up with Facebook. They say the company still allows too much racist, hateful, and violent content to spread on its social media network — and that company executives gave PR “spin” rather than meaningful solutions in a meeting on Tuesday about these issues.

In light of recent protests against racial injustice in the US, Facebook is facing a renewed reckoning over how it handles hate speech on its platform. Civil rights leaders, advertisers, politicians, and even some of Facebook’s own employees are urging the social media giant to make faster progress in its several-years-long “journey” of fighting hate speech. Critics say the company’s own executives have held back this progress because they have failed to commit to concrete fixes or timelines.

“It was abundantly clear in our meeting today that Mark Zuckerberg and the Facebook team are not yet ready to address the vitriolic hate on their platform,” the Stop Hate for Profit Coalition, a collection of civil rights groups that includes the Anti-Defamation League, the NAACP, Free Press, and Color of Change, said in a statement shortly after Tuesday’s call. The group denounced how Zuckerberg “offered the same old defense of white supremacist, anti-Semitic, islamophobic, and other hateful groups” that it has “heard too many times before.”

In a press call on Tuesday following the meeting with Facebook, the Stop Hate for Profit Coalition said the company had not met any of the coalition’s 10 outstanding demands, which include having Facebook install a C-suite-level executive with civil rights expertise to make key decisions about discrimination; to conduct regular third-party audits of misinformation and hate speech on the platform; and to remove Facebook groups promoting things like white nationalism and anti-Semitism.

“Unfortunately, we got no clarity, no details, no results,” Jonathan Greenblatt, president of the Anti-Defamation League (ADL), said on the press call. “This was disappointing to us. We expected specifics and this is not what we heard.”

A spokesperson for Facebook told Recode in a statement:

“This meeting was an opportunity for us to hear from the campaign organizers and reaffirm our commitment to combating hate on our platform. They want Facebook to be free of hate speech and so do we. That’s why it’s so important that we work to get this right.” Facebook noted that it has “invested billions” in moderating hate speech, created new policies to prohibit voter suppression, and recently banned 250 white supremacist organizations. “We know we will be judged by our actions, not by our words, and are grateful to these groups and many others for their continued engagement,” the statement said.

In the past few weeks, nearly 1,000 companies, including big-name brands like Unilever and Coca Cola, have agreed to join Stop Hate for Profit’s boycott, pausing their advertising at least through July because of Facebook’s perceived failure to police hate speech on its platforms, whether from everyday users or political figures like Donald Trump. While this boycott represents a small portion of Facebook’s total ad revenue (which largely comes from small- and medium-sized businesses), it’s still bad for the company’s reputation.

Facebook’s struggles in handling hate speech and misinformation on its platform date back a long time. Many have argued the company’s policies and inaction have contributed to the genocide against the Rohingya people in Myanmar, exacerbated political polarization in the lead-up to the 2016 US presidential election, and facilitated the growth of violent extremist groups like the boogaloo movement in the US.

This criticism of Facebook resurfaced after the company refused to moderate recent controversial posts by President Trump on the platform, such as his “shooting ... looting” comment, which many viewed as inciting violence against Black Lives Matter protesters. By contrast, Twitter flagged an identical post by Trump on its platform with a warning label for glorifying violence.

In a public note on her Facebook account on Tuesday, Facebook COO Sheryl Sandberg defended the progress Facebook has made on this front over the years and said it’s continuing to improve.

“We have clear policies against hate — and we strive constantly to get better and faster at enforcing them,” Sandberg wrote. “We have made real progress over the years, but this work is never finished and we know what a big responsibility Facebook has to get better at finding and removing hateful content.”

On Wednesday, Facebook is expected to publicly release the final results of its two-year external audit on civil rights, which tracked how the company addresses hate speech on its platform. But the groups in the Stop Profit for Hate campaign say they doubt the report will prompt the kind of change needed, and so they are continuing to pressure the company publicly to take more forceful action against hate speech.

As Facebook has faced pressure to come down harder against hate speech and misinformation, it’s emphasized its commitment to free speech principles. Zuckerberg has repeatedly said he doesn’t want to be an “arbiter of truth” on thorny issues like political misinformation — an argument he has long used to defend Facebook’s role as a “platform” of open communication rather than a media company that passes editorial judgment about acceptable political and democratic discourse.

Many Republicans, including President Trump, have made unfounded accusations that Facebook and other social media platforms have an anti-conservative bias. In May, the president issued an executive order attempting to strip social media platforms of legal protections in order to compel them to be less purportedly biased. The executive order is widely seen as legally unenforceable, but it has restarted a political debate about what people should be allowed to say on social media platforms.

On Tuesday’s call, civil rights leaders disputed the notion that stopping hate is a political issue.

“This is not an issue with two sides. There is nothing partisan or political in pushing back on prejudice,” said the ADL’s Greenblatt.

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