Color of Change: The Civil Rights Thorn in Facebook's Side

Photo Credit: LODI Franck/SIPA/Shutterstock
December 19, 2018
Updated 3mo ago

By Carlo Versano

Facebook can add another problem to its tally: a disappointing update to a civil rights audit the company posted on Tuesday, just hours before The New York Times published an explosive report on the company's mishandling of user data.

The audit has been a "black box," according to Rashad Robinson, the president of Color of Change, one of the groups that has strongly criticized Facebook ($FB) over issues of civil rights on the platform.

"We've been battling Facebook for a number of years on a wide range of fronts," Robinson told Cheddar in an interview Wednesday.

The audit, led by Laura Murphy, an influential civil rights leader, was commissioned in May and has thus far included interviews with dozens of civil rights groups. Among the subjects under scrutiny are content moderation, transparency, voter registration, and voter suppression.

Murphy wrote that her work so far “represents a start, not a destination.”

COO Sheryl Sandberg authored a post on Tuesday that included a long-awaited update to the company's civil rights findings, saying the audit is one of her priorities for the coming year. She added one of the concrete steps Facebook has already taken was to update its policy to ban posts that outright misrepresent how people can vote or whether their votes will be counted ー such as posts that falsely tell people they can vote online.

Color of Change had become such a thorn in the side of Facebook that it was one of the targets of an opposition research group employed by the social media giant, as revealed in a November New York Times exposé. (Facebook has since ended its relationship with the firm, Definers Public Affairs.)

Robinson and other activists in recent weeks met with Sandberg, who had promised a fuller update by the end of the year. But what the company put out this week "leaves a lot to be desired," he said.

The NAACP, the Southern Poverty Law Center, and other progressive advocacy groups called for a boycott of Facebook on Tuesday, urging users to log off for one week in protest of the platform.

Facebook has noted its efforts to combat voter suppression as a concrete example of changes it was making to fight discrimination, though Robinson noted that the company was at the same time training employees to look for signs of voter fraud, which Robinson said shows its "lack of understanding of civil rights."

"Putting voter fraud on the same level as voter suppression has been an ongoing tactic of many right-wing folks inside of Facebook," Robinson said.

Now, reeling from the latest report that it gave other big tech companies access to user data, Facebook says everything it did was within users' terms of service and was not in violation of a 2012 FTC settlement.

That's not good enough for Robinson: "If toys are put into our kids' stockings that will hurt and damage them, just having some disclaimer is not enough," he said. "We actually have protections. We have laws."

The audit is ongoing, and Robinson said he was told to expect another update in six months.

For full interview click here.