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‘Heartbreaking’ and ‘Vexing’ decisions on Facebook despite progress being made: Audit

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A Facebook-commissioned audit of the social network's civil rights policies said progress may be obscured by 'vexing and heartbreaking' actions. — AFP/Files

SAN FRANCISCO: An independent civil rights audit of Facebook released Wednesday expressed worry about "heartbreaking" and "vexing" decisions at the leading social network, despite progress being made.

The auditors pointed out that unchecked posts by US President Donald Trump that could discourage voting or encourage shooting citizens taking to the streets in a call for people to be treated equally under the law regardless of race.

"This report outlines a number of positive and consequential steps that the company has taken," said 100-page report commissioned by Facebook.

"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 detailed steps the social network has taken to fight bigotry, election tampering and more, but contended that the efforts are lacking.

"Unfortunately, in our view Facebook's approach to civil rights remains too reactive and piecemeal," the report said. "Many in the civil rights community have become disheartened, frustrated and angry after years of engagement where they implored the company to do more to advance equality and fight discrimination, while also safeguarding free expression."

Frustration being aimed at Facebook from some quarters is the most intense seen since the civil rights audit began in 2018, report authors contended.

'VP for civil rights'

The report recommends that Facebook build a stronger civil rights infrastructure that includes experts on key topics such as elections and hate speech, with a full-time team working under a "civil rights vice president" at the California-based company.

The report also calls for an interpretation of Facebook policy against voter suppression that prohibits content such as misleading Trump posts about the integrity of mail-in voting.

"Facebook has made policy and enforcement choices that leave our election exposed to interference by the president and others who seek to use misinformation to sow confusion and suppress voting," the report said.

The report also advised Facebook go beyond banning explicit references to white separatism and white nationalism to also prohibit them being praised, supported or represented at the social network.

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While it has made progress, Facebook has not yet devoted enough resources or moved fast enough to tackle myriad civil rights challenges, the report found.

The audit led by former American Civil Liberties Union lawyer Laura Murphy was launched at the behest of civil rights organizations and members of Congress seeking to ensure that "civil rights laws and principles are respected, embraced, and robustly incorporated into the work at Facebook," according to the report.

No quick fix

Facebook said in a blog post that the audit report points out its progress and shortcomings and makes it clear that more needs to be done.

"This two-year journey has had a profound effect on the way we think about our impact on the world," Facebook chief operating officer Sheryl Sandberg said of working with the auditors.

Sandberg contended there are no quick fixes for issues detailed in the report, calling the audit the beginning of a journey.

"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," she said.

Facebook said it is putting some of the audit proposals into practice, and made "a commitment to hire a civil rights leader who will continue to push us on these issues internally," according to Sandberg.

The report comes a day after Sandberg and Facebook chief executive Mark Zuckerberg met with organizers of a Facebook ad boycott pressing for more aggressive action on hateful content and disinformation.

The activists said they were disappointed and vowed to press on with their campaign which has grown to nearly 1,000 advertisers.


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