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Facebook's policies dealt civil rights a 'tremendous setback'

Auditor's scathing report highlights Trump posts as 'hate speech'

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Under pressure: Facebook co-founder and CEO Mark Zuckerberg

Under pressure: Facebook co-founder and CEO Mark Zuckerberg

Under pressure: Facebook co-founder and CEO Mark Zuckerberg

The civil rights auditors Facebook hired to scrutinise its civil rights record have delivered a long-awaited and scathing indictment of the social media giant.

They said decisions to prioritise free speech above other values were a "tremendous setback" that opened the door for abuse by politicians.

The report, published yesterday criticised Facebook's choice to leave several posts by Donald Trump untouched, including three in May that the auditors said "clearly violated" the company's policies prohibiting voter suppression, hate speech and incitement of violence.

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 company's decisions on recent posts by the US president and others suggest 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.

The Facebook-commissioned report potentially carries more weight than the other criticisms of Facebook on civil rights - including a widespread advertiser boycott - as Facebook granted the auditors extensive access to its systems and executives, and it encompassed feedback from more than 100 civil rights groups.

However, it provides no guarantee that Facebook, which was co-founded by CEO Mark Zuckerberg, will make major changes to its policies or practices.

"Being a platform where everyone can make their voice heard is core to our mission, but that doesn't mean it's acceptable for people to spread hate. It's not," Facebook chief operating officer Sheryl Sandberg wrote in a blog post in response to the report. "We have clear policies against hate - and we strive constantly to get better and faster at enforcing them."

The report comes on the heels of a meeting Facebook held with the organisers of a fast-growing boycott of more than 1,000 advertisers, who have several demands of Facebook, including hiring a top-level executive who will ensure the global platform does not fuel racism and radicalisation.

The timing of the publication of the long-awaited report led the civil rights groups organising the boycott to argue Facebook was attempting to use it to draw attention away from their demands, which also include ending exceptions for politicians. The organisers called the Tuesday meeting "disappointing".

Facebook denied it was trying to deflect attention from the boycott.

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Facebook's auditors faulted the social network for making policy decisions that undermine civil rights progress.

They said Facebook failed to improve the experience of people of colour who use the platform and they said it provides a forum for white supremacy and white nationalism.

They also said the firm had delayed acting on calls to hire experts in civil rights to senior leadership positions.

The auditors noted recent decisions over hate speech were made by senior executives who lacked specific civil rights expertise and nuanced understandings of race.

Facebook has made some concessions, including adding fact-checking labels to certain posts. The auditors praised the concessions but said they did not go far enough.

Civil rights leaders said the release of the report is by no means an "end game" in their efforts to change the social network.

Vanita Gupta, of the Leadership Conference on Civil and Human Rights, said that work is increasingly critical due to the intense polarisation sweeping the US. (© Washington Post)


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