Facebook Audit Key Quotes: Failing to Censor Trump Sets 'Terrible Precedent'

A two-year investigation into Facebook's civil rights policies came to an end this week with the release of an 89-page report that describes "serious setbacks" resulting from decisions made by the social networking giant.

Publication of the audit comes as Facebook is embroiled in a vast ad boycott led by a coalition of civil rights groups, which have accused the Mark Zuckerberg-led platform of failing to stop the spread of hateful content, misinformation and extremism.

But the report has been brewing for years, led by civil liberties expert Laura W. Murphy and a team from law firm Relman Colfax, led by partner Megan Cacace.

The report offers a detailed, often-damning, breakdown of Facebook's struggle to tackle hate speech, fact check posts, and moderate content. Auditors described their horror at its handling of Donald Trump, and expressed shock at some "heartbreaking decisions" made by executives, yet acknowledged "notable progress" in other areas.

"[Facebook] has not yet devoted enough resources or moved with sufficient speed to tackle the multitude of civil rights challenges that are before it," the report said.

"This provokes legitimate questions about Facebook's full-throated commitment to reaching the summit, i.e., fighting discrimination, online hate, promoting inclusion, promoting justice and upholding civil rights."

It's a lengthy and thorough analysis of Facebook's policies and procedures, so here are some of the key takeaways and quotes from the report, as chosen by Newsweek:

Report represents a start, not a destination

Lead auditor Laura Murphy acknowledged Facebook has made positive shifts towards improving civil rights internally, but stressed the work is only beginning.

Key quote:

"Facebook is in a different place than it was two years ago—some teams of employees are asking questions about civil rights issue... before launching policies and products. But...this progress represents a start, not a destination. While the audit process has been meaningful, and has led to some significant improvements in the platform, we have also watched the company make painful decisions with real world consequences that are serious setbacks for civil rights."

Approach to civil rights 'reactive and piecemeal'

The investigators noted that Facebook has listened to the concerns during the audit and made some changes to improve the experience for users—but said more needs to be done, including strengthening its voter suppression policies that could help police controversial posts made by politicians as the 2020 election approaches.

Key quotes:

"With each success the auditors became more hopeful that Facebook would develop a more coherent and positive plan of action that demonstrated, in word and deed, the company's commitment to civil rights. Unfortunately, in our view Facebook's approach to civil rights remains too reactive and piecemeal.

"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... the frustration directed at Facebook from some quarters is at the highest level seen since the company was founded, and certainly since the civil rights audit started in 2018."

Trump posts setting a 'terrible precedent'

The auditors did not hold back when discussing the negative impact the U.S. president has had on the platform on multiple occasions, especially during this year.

The team said it could "not understand" why the social networking platform allowed misrepresentations of voting methods by Trump, saying it only undermined a public comment previously made by Zuckerberg, who asserted "voting is voice."

In May, Trump made posts describing official, state-issued ballots or ballot applications as "illegal" and gave false information about how to obtain a ballot. Facebook said none of the posts had violated its policies, but the auditors did not seem to agree.

Key quote:

"The auditors are deeply concerned that Facebook's recent decisions on posts by President Trump indicate a tremendous setback for all of the policies that attempt to ban voter suppression on Facebook. From the auditors' perspective, allowing the Trump posts to remain establishes a terrible precedent that may lead other politicians and non-politicians to spread false information about legal voting methods, which would effectively allow the platform to be weaponized."

Free expression is good, but must apply to all

The auditors said Facebook's decision not to label or restrict posts by the president in May had "caused considerable alarm." Zuckerberg stood by the decision not to remove the posts, saying the platform needed to err on the side of free expression.

"There is NO WAY (ZERO!) that Mail-In Ballots will be anything less than substantially fraudulent. Mail boxes will be robbed, ballots will be forged & even illegally printed out & fraudulently signed," president Trump wrote in one of his Facebook posts.

Facebook found the posts did not violate community standards. The investigators said they had disagreed with the decision and executives' handling of the situation.

Key quotes:

"Elevating free expression is a good thing, but it should apply to everyone. When it means that powerful politicians do not have to abide by the same rules that everyone else does, a hierarchy of speech is created that privileges certain voices over less powerful voices. The prioritization of free expression over all other values, such as equality and non-discrimination, is deeply troubling.

"We are concerned that politicians...will capitalize on the policy gaps made apparent by the president's posts and target particular communities to suppress votes of groups based on their race or other characteristics. With only months left before a major election, this is deeply troublesome as misinformation, sowing racial division and calls for violence near elections can do great damage."

Failure to protect democratic processes

A significant portion of the report discussed Facebook's policy of not fact-checking political speech, even if it potentially breaks the community standards.

The team said it was a major issue that Facebook posts could still potentially stay up as "newsworthy" even if they violated a policy that forbids calls for people to be excluded from political participation based on their race, religion or characteristics.

Key quote:

"This exemption is highly problematic and demonstrates a failure to adequately protect democratic processes from racial appeals by politicians during elections. [We] have substantial concern about these policies and their potential to be exploited to target specific communities with false information, inaccurate content designed to perpetuate and promote discrimination and stereotypes, and/or for other targeted manipulation, intimidation, or suppression."

Content moderation remains troubling

A significant section of the audit was dedicated to Facebook's struggle to moderate its users' content—especially updates by U.S. politicians, referencing Trump's post in May which included the phrase "when the looting starts, the shooting starts."

The report noted the civil rights community had found Facebook's lack of enforcement "troubling" because it reflected a "seeming impassivity toward racial violence."

Key quotes:

"The civil rights community and the auditors were deeply troubled by Facebook's decision, believing that it ignores how such statements, especially when made by those in power and targeted toward an identifiable, minority community, condone vigilantism and legitimize violence against that community."

"The auditors shared the civil rights community's concerns, and strongly urged Facebook to remove the post, but did not have the opportunity to speak directly to any decision-makers until after Facebook had already decided to leave it up."

Algorithms could flag posts condemning hate speech

The audit noted Facebook's algorithms have "enormous reach," impacting if a user will see news, be shown a job listing or offered to buy a product. They also influence what content should be flagged or proactively removed from the platform.

Auditors said poorly designed, biased, or discriminatory algorithms result in "disparities that go undetected" unless systems are in place to assess them, warning Facebook's algorithms could "inadvertently" flag some posts condemning hate speech.

Key quote:

"[We] think Facebook needs to approach these issues with a greater sense of urgency. There are steps it can take now—including mandatory training, guidance on known best practices, and company-wide systems for ensuring that AI fairness guidance are being followed—that would help reduce bias and discrimination concerns even before expert consensus is reached."

Facebook not sufficiently attuned to polarization

According to the audit report, the social network needs to pay more attention to how it pushes people toward extremist or divisive content, and into echo chambers.

Key quote:

"The auditors do not believe that Facebook is sufficiently attuned to the depth of concern on the issue of polarization and the way that the algorithms used by Facebook inadvertently fuel extreme and polarizing content.

"The auditors believe that Facebook should do everything in its power to prevent its tools and algorithms from driving people toward self-reinforcing echo chambers of extremism, and that the company must recognize that failure to do so can have dangerous (and life-threatening) real-world consequences."

How did Facebook respond?

Chief Operating Officer Sheryl Sandberg released a statement Wednesday ahead of the report's publication, which conceded that the site "still has a long way to go" when it comes to civil rights, but said the company "stands firmly against hate."

Sandberg wrote in the blog: "As hard as it has been to have our shortcomings exposed by experts, it has undoubtedly been a really important process for our company. We would urge companies in our industry and beyond to do the same."

Lead auditor Murphy said that despite the investigation coming to an end, it is important that work on improving civil rights issues remains a priority for Facebook.

"These policies have direct and consequential implications for the U.S. presidential election in November 2020, and we will be watching closely," Murphy wrote.

"The responsibility for implementing strong equality, non-discrimination and inclusion practices rests squarely with the CEO and COO. They have to own it and make sure that managers throughout the company take responsibility for following through."

Mark Zuckerberg
Facebook co-founder, Chairman and CEO Mark Zuckerberg testifies before a combined Senate Judiciary and Commerce committee hearing in the Hart Senate Office Building on Capitol Hill April 10, 2018 in Washington, DC. Alex Wong/Getty