Image: ShutterstockSAN FRANCISCO — Mark Zuckerberg and Sheryl Sandberg, Facebook’s two top executives, met with civil rights groups on Tuesday in an attempt to mollify them over how the social network treats hate speech on its site. But Zuckerberg, Facebook’s chief executive, and Sandberg, the chief operating officer, failed to win its critics over. For more than an hour over Zoom, the duo, along with other Facebook executives, discussed the company’s handling of hate speech with representatives from the Anti-Defamation League, the National Association for the Advancement of Colored People, Color of Change and other groups. Those organizations have recently helped push hundreds of companies, such as Unilever and Best Buy, to pause their advertising on Facebook to protest its handling of toxic speech and misinformation. The groups said they discussed about 10 demands with Facebook’s leaders on Tuesday to help prevent vitriol and hate from spreading on its site. Those included Facebook hiring a top executive with a civil rights background, submitting to regular independent audits and updating its community standards, according to a statement from the Free Press advocacy group, whose co-chief executive, Jessica J. González, was on the call. Zuckerberg and Sandberg agreed to hire a civil rights position, but they did not come to a resolution on most other requests, representatives of the groups said. Instead, they said, the Facebook executives reverted to “spin” and firing up its “powerful PR machine.” “The company’s leaders delivered the same old talking points to try to placate us without meeting our demands,” González said. Other civil rights leaders called the meeting “very disappointing” and blasted Facebook for being “functionally flawed.” In a media call after the meeting, Rashad Robinson, head of Color of Change, said of Facebook’s executives: “They showed up to the meeting expecting an A for attendance. Attending alone is not enough.” Facebook said in a statement that the groups “want Facebook to be free of hate speech and so do we.” It reiterated it was taking steps to “keep hate off of our platform” and added, “We know we will be judged by our actions not by our words and are grateful to these groups and many others for their continued engagement.” The wave of criticism showed how far Facebook is from reassuring its detractors, which is likely to lead to continued problems for the Silicon Valley giant. For weeks, the social network has faced increasing pressure to tackle toxic speech and misinformation on its site, fueled by inflammatory posts from President Donald Trump and a backdrop of racial unrest in the country. Rivals like Twitter and Snap have recently moved to label or play down untruthful or incendiary posts from Trump on their platforms, but Facebook has resisted labeling his posts as hate speech or taking the messages down. Zuckerberg has defended the hands-off approach by stressing the importance of free speech and arguing that Facebook is not an arbiter of posts. That position has caused anger. Facebook’s own employees have pushed back, staging a virtual “walkout” last month to protest Zuckerberg’s position. Several weeks ago, the civil rights groups also organized an effort called “Stop Hate for Profit,” urging hundreds of advertisers to stop spending on Facebook because it had failed to curtail the spread of noxious content. As the ad boycott has grown, Facebook executives have taken an increasingly conciliatory tone with advertisers and others. The company has about 8 million advertisers whose spending accounts for more than 98% of its annual $70.7 billion in revenue. As part of its response, Facebook said it planned to release the final part of a yearslong audit of its civil rights policies and practices on Wednesday. The auditors have been examining how Facebook handles issues like hate speech, election interference and algorithmic bias. But the audit is “only as good as what Facebook ends up doing with the content,” Robinson said. Otherwise, he said, “it’s like going to the doctor, getting a new set of recommendations about your diet and then not doing anything about it and wondering why you’re not getting any healthier.” Ahead of Tuesday’s meeting, the civil rights groups had sent over their list of 10 demands. Sandberg had appeared to offer an olive branch in a Facebook post on Tuesday morning, saying the company had a “big responsibility” to catch and remove hate speech. She also wrote that the company was “making changes — not for financial reasons or advertiser pressure, but because it is the right thing to do.” “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,” she wrote. “It’s not.” But the meeting itself was largely a retread of the “same conversation from the past two years,” in which Facebook executives have a pleasant dialogue, but then set “no actionable steps,” Derrick Johnson, chief executive of the NAACP, said in an interview. He said he was particularly disappointed that no Facebook executive had any specific answer or reply to their list of demands, aside from platitudes. “Over the two years that the NAACP has been in conversation with Facebook, we’ve watched the dialogue blossom into nothingness,” Johnson said. “They lack this cultural sensitivity to understand that their platform is actually being used to cause harm, or they understand the harm that the platform is causing and they have chosen to take the profit as opposed to protecting the people.” Later on Tuesday, the Facebook executives met with another group of civil rights experts, including Vanita Gupta from the Leadership Conference on Civil & Human Rights. Gupta said in an interview after that voter suppression and misinformation on the platform were “still not being adequately addressed.” She added that Facebook faced multiple pressure points from the boycott and its own employees, meaning that “the asks of the civil rights community are unified, but there are different strategies being deployed.” There are questions as to how effective the ad boycott will ultimately be in moving Facebook to make changes. In a private meeting last week with employees, Zuckerberg said he expected advertisers to eventually return to purchasing ads on the platform. Some boycott participants are pulling ads from Facebook for only the month of July, while others have pledged to stay away until the company makes major changes to its content moderation policies. Several advertisers, such as Unilever, decided to exclude multiple social platforms, such as Twitter. Most of the protesting companies are still using Facebook to reach consumers, often by posting unpaid content. But this week, the publisher Stuff, New Zealand’s largest media company, said it would experiment with stopping all activity on Facebook and Instagram, having already backed away from advertising on Facebook last year. The leaders of the ad boycott said that beyond Facebook, all social media companies needed to do a better job of policing content and defending against hate speech on their platforms. But given that Facebook was the largest social network, they said, it deserved the most scrutiny. Even if Facebook did not feel accountable to the civil rights groups, said González of Free Press, Zuckerberg will be testifying in front of Congress on July 27 as part of an antitrust hearing with the chief executives of Apple, Google and Amazon. “Is he going to come over to the right side of history, or face accountability in other ways?” González said.
©2019 New York Times News Service