Some civil rights watchdogs say Facebook’s “Civil Rights Audit,” which recommends a crackdown on white nationalism and related ideologies, is a step in the right direction but doesn’t go far enough.
On Sunday, Facebook released a progress report about its ongoing internal investigation into how the company handles civil rights issues on the platform. With contributions from more than 90 civil liberties organizations, the report suggests a blueprint for how Facebook can fix its spotty record on racism, discrimination, and voter intimidation.
The progress report also addresses Facebook’s current policy on white nationalist content, which civil rights leaders have criticized as insufficient. If Facebook wants to clean up the site, it will have to take on the report’s recommendations and more, those experts say.
“I think they’ve been trying to play in this gray area for far too long and that’s come back to haunt them,” Henry Fernandez, member of the digital civil rights coalition Change the Terms, told The Daily Beast.
Fernandez was referring to Facebook’s often-inconsistent approach to racist content.
A 2018 Motherboard investigation found that while Facebook prohibited discussion of “white supremacy,” it allowed discussion of “white nationalism” and “white separatism,” both of which are racist ideologies stemming from white supremacy.
This year, after a broad backlash about its insufficient policy, Facebook banned explicit discussion of white nationalism and white separatism. Still, the company declined to take immediate action on white nationalist posts that didn’t explicitly use the term. (Facebook said the coded language was too difficult to detect and remove.)
The half-step against white nationalism meant that prominent white nationalists could continue posting. A week after Facebook announced its ban on white nationalism, it refused to pull a white nationalist video by Canadian hate-monger Faith Goldy. At the time, a Facebook spokesperson told HuffPost that the video did not promote white nationalism but was merely a discussion about ethnicity. (Facebook banned Goldy and several neo-Nazis the following week.)
Facebook’s frequent reversals have led some civil rights groups to accuse it of making up its policies on the fly.
“The burden still remains on victimized community members to report content and hope that the company will address the problem,” Muslim Advocates, a civil rights group said in a statement on Facebook’s civil rights audit. “Facebook’s piecemeal approach to these issues will not result in long-term solutions, and the time has come for the company to honor its commitment to fix these problems.”
Fernandez said he suspected Facebook hadn’t studied its subject matter closely enough.
“I think the teams they put together lacked the expertise and the diversity to understand and articulate why there is no distinction between white nationalism, white separatism, and white supremacy,” he said.
He pointed to revelations this week that Customs and Border Patrol agents had used Facebook groups to disparage immigrants and Latina congresswomen.
The new civil rights audit called Facebook’s definition of white nationalism “too narrow” and suggested Facebook take action against all white nationalist content, even if it doesn’t use the term explicitly.
The audit also announced the creation of an internal Civil Rights Task Force, comprised of senior Facebook execs, which will meet monthly. But if the task force is to make real changes, it needs more than monthly meetings of C-suite executives, Fernandez said.
“The problem is, what they’re saying they’ll now have—a committee chaired by Sheryl Sandberg and then a couple outside consultants meeting monthly—seems pretty thin compared to the scale of problems they have,” he said. “I think they need to figure out how they’re going to embed that civil rights structure much more deeply in the organization.”
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