Bloomberg Law
Jan. 12, 2021, 7:24 PMUpdated: Jan. 12, 2021, 10:20 PM

Facebook Civil Rights Chief Inherits Political Speech Battle (1)

Ayanna Alexander
Ayanna Alexander

Facebook‘s newest civil rights executive will have to convince civil rights and technology groups he can meaningfully shift policies at a company they say hasn’t substantively addressed racist and violent language on its platform.

The addition of Roy L. Austin Jr., a former Obama civil rights official, as Facebook’s vice president of civil rights comes after the company and Twitter both permanently banned President Donald Trump for his inflammatory language leading up to the Jan. 6 riot at the Capitol. The new civil rights addition follows advocate pressure to address a recent audit that found the company routinely allowed discriminatory speech—particularly by politicians.

Austin will set his own priorities for the year, which includes addressing the audit, Facebook said

That means taking on a corporate culture that has been resistant to change, Jillian C. York, director for international freedom of expression at the Electronic Frontier Foundation, said.

“I honestly don’t expect much,” she said.

“Facebook brought on a human rights director a couple of years ago, but from what I can tell, it appears that most decisions are still being made at the very top of the stack—by Mark Zuckerberg, Sheryl Sandberg, Joel Kaplan, and the rest of the executive team. I would hope that they’re bringing in Austin to truly do his job, but I’m not optimistic.”

‘A Major Hole’

Major brands, including The North Face, Unilever, Verizon, Clorox, and Microsoft, joined an advertising boycott after a two-year audit of Facebook found “a major hole in Facebook’s understanding and application of civil rights.”

Empowering Austin to bring meaningful change around Facebook’s policing of racist and violent speech would prove his role is “something more than window dressing,” Robert Weissman, president of Public Citizen, said.

“That will mean directly addressing the challenges of content moderation, racially disparate impacts, and behavioral-based advertising. Taking these challenges seriously will require adjustments to Facebook’s business model and may cost the company some revenue. Is it finally willing to do so?”

Austin will set his own priorities for the year, which includes addressing the audit, Facebook said.

“He will be building on the work we’ve done with Laura Murphy and Relman Colfax through the civil rights audit, and the lessons we’ve learned from our elections integrity efforts,” Sally Aldous, a Facebook spokeswoman, said.

“Hate speech and content issues will be something his role touches upon, but it won’t be the only thing.”

Setting an Example

Stop Hate for Profit, which led the boycott and includes groups like the NAACP and Anti-Defamation League, sent Facebook multiple recommendations, one of which would establish a civil rights infrastructure.

Bringing Austin in as a civil rights executive could help, according to Alexandra Givens, president and CEO of the Center for Democracy & Technology.

“A key lesson from the Facebook civil rights audit was the need to focus on structural changes that would empower leaders within the company to address challenging civil rights questions directly,” Givens said.

One of those challenges will be sorting out satire from genuinely offensive material, something increasingly difficult with more moderation being automated, York said.

“In my decade of working on content moderation, I have yet to see a policy implementation against hate speech that doesn’t also manage to catch counterspeech, satire, and other vital speech in its net,” York said.

If Austin succeeds, that could provide a roadmap for other social media companies struggling with their own speech issues, Weissman said.

“If Facebook gets serious about respecting and advancing racial justice, others will follow that example,” he said. “If the company continues to dissemble, then there’s great reason to worry that other companies will follow that example instead.”

Facebook announced Monday that it plans to remove posts with the phrase “stop the steal” in an effort to reduce the risk of violence ahead of President-elect Joe Biden’s inauguration on Jan. 20.

(Updated details in paragraph 20. Earlier version corrected misspelling)

To contact the reporter on this story: Ayanna Alexander in Washington at

To contact the editors responsible for this story: Andrew Childers at; Meghashyam Mali at