Facebook Chief Executive Officer
“Right now is a moment of real reckoning for the company,” said
The advocates led the campaign to persuade advertisers including
Civil rights groups have long been asking Facebook to make policy and staffing changes to address their grievances. Concerns have included how the platform has promoted discriminatory advertising, allowed foreign adversaries to try to suppress the Black vote, and let white supremacy groups organize rallies.
Leaders of the groups said their efforts to get the social media platform to change have often been only given lip-service, and, at times, even attacked.
Facebook declined to comment, but pointed to an
Facebook is also under increasing scrutiny in Washington. Zuckerberg has
Gupta and other advocates said Facebook has improved its response to concerns about Census misinformation and has curtailed discriminatory ads, but has fallen short in fighting voter suppression, election misinformation and moderating political speech.
“They are making many of the changes at our urging, but are missing the core piece,” Gupta said, pointing to Zuckerberg’s insistence on leaving misleading political speech unchecked because he deems the content newsworthy.
Gupta was on a call with Zuckerberg last month, along with
Civil rights advocates had been contacting Facebook as early as 2017 about issues such as hate speech and election interference, but intensified their outreach following reports that Russian operatives had exploited Facebook and other platforms to suppress Black voting, stir social unrest and help Trump win the 2016 election.
Madihha Ahussain, a special counsel for Washington-based group Muslim Advocates, said that while her group initially thought they were making progress with Facebook over anti-Muslim posts, they began to realize the company wasn’t taking systematic action. They were “just listening to us and nothing is changing on the platform itself,” Ahussain said. “We were just getting the runaround.”
For Robinson, the turning point came in November 2018, when he got a call from a New York Times reporter asking him to comment on startling revelations: Facebook had hired Definers Public Affairs, a former Republican-linked firm, to compile opposition research about billionaire investor
“It became very clear that we had to reset the terms of the relationship,” with Facebook, said Robinson. “We knew that we must have been on to something if they were trying to spend their money to discredit us.”
The advocates sent an open letter to Zuckerberg and Chief Operating Officer
Facebook fired Definers and Sandberg later apologized in a meeting with the advocates. Facebook tapped
Election War Room
Meanwhile, the groups were growing increasingly concerned that Facebook wasn’t prepared to spot and eliminate voter-suppression campaigns or misinformation on its platform ahead of the 2018 midterms.
About two months before the election, groups including the National Urban League and the NAACP traveled to Facebook’s headquarters in Silicon Valley to see its election “war room” and discuss its election-integrity plan with company officials, including Sandberg, said LaShawn Warren, executive vice president of government affairs at the Leadership Conference on Civil and Human Rights, which also attended.
To Warren, the Facebook team seemed more focused on eliminating inaccurate information about poll locations and opening and closing times than it was in detecting more sophisticated ways bad actors could try to dissuade voters. Her group pressed Facebook to hire more people with voter-suppression expertise.
On Dec. 18 2018, Facebook released an update from Murphy detailing what Facebook had done. Facebook had also hired voting experts to help with its election-integrity work.
It wasn’t enough for the groups. That same day, more than 30 organizations representing civil rights advocates, big tech critics and liberal causes wrote a letter expressing “profound disappointment regarding Facebook’s role in generating bigotry and hatred toward vulnerable communities” and called for Zuckerberg and Sandberg to step down from the board.
They didn’t step down, but Sandberg and other Facebook officials continued to talk with civil rights groups about their complaints. Sandberg met with advocates and members of the
Facebook won praise from the groups for its
Zuckerberg had previewed his remarks during a phone call with at least one civil rights leader who expressed concern that his emphasis on free speech could come at the expense of civil rights, according to a person familiar with the matter. The leader told Zuckerberg that Facebook’s top executives had no civil rights experience. The co-founder responded that he had a lot of former President Barack Obama people on staff, the person said. The leader also cautioned him against invoking Martin Luther King Jr. to make his point, the person said.
Zuckerberg’s speech won praise from conservatives, but criticism from civil rights advocates including King’s daughter,
Just before the speech, Politico reported that since July 2019, Zuckerberg had been meeting with prominent conservative thinkers, including commentator Ben Shapiro,
Facebook was increasingly facing criticism for catering to conservatives in its polices and rhetoric. It was only after news broke about Zuckerberg’s meetings with right-leaning pundits that he invited the civil rights advocates to a dinner at his Palo Alto, California, home in November 2019.
“I did feel that Zuckerberg listened to us,” said Ifill of the NAACP Legal Defense and Education Fund, who was at the dinner. “Listening is not quite the same, you know, as being willing to actually make change.”
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