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Facebook Boycott Organizers Want a Civil Rights Expert in the Company's Executive Suite

07/02/2020 | 05:01pm EDT

By Sahil Patel

Facebook Inc. leaders including Chief Executive Mark Zuckerberg and Chief Operating Officer Sheryl Sandberg are set to meet early next week with civil rights groups that called for an advertising boycott against the company over its handling of hate speech and misinformation.

Among the top requests from the groups will be for Facebook to hire an executive with civil rights expertise for a post in the social-media giant's C-suite.

"If they have civil rights leadership that's experienced in the C-suite, it will keep the company accountable on those issues," said Jonathan Greenblatt, chief executive of the Anti-Defamation League, one of the organizers of the boycott.

Leaders of civil rights groups are meeting with Facebook executives after calling for an ad boycott of the platform for the month of July. Facebook, which has been under growing pressure to change and update some of its content and brand-safety policies, this week requested a new meeting with civil rights leaders, including Mr. Greenblatt, Rashad Robinson, president of Color of Change, and Derrick Johnson, president and CEO of the NAACP.

"We share the goal of these organizations; we don't benefit from hate and we don't want it on our platforms," a Facebook spokeswoman said in a statement. "We look forward to hearing directly from these organizations and sharing an update on the investments we've made and the work we're continuing to do."

The civil rights leaders want Facebook to make meaningful changes and be more accountable at the top echelons of its leadership structure. Facebook executives, such as Joel Kaplan, the company's vice president of global public policy, play a role in content decisions. But they have a conflict of interest because they also are looking to curry favor with politicians who may have their own opinions about content on Facebook, said Mr. Robinson.

"There needs to be a separation between content security and safety, and the people who lobby with politicians," Mr. Robinson said.

The ad boycott is just one of many pressures confronting Facebook, which also has been under fire from many employees, activists and Democrats who say it has failed to enforce its rules against politicians, including President Donald Trump. Several employees have disagreed publicly with Facebook's stances on a variety of issues, including its recent decision to leave up a post by Mr. Trump that many academics and employees say violated the company's rules about inciting violence.

Some employees say some of these missteps stem from the lack of diversity at the top of the company. Thursday, a Black Facebook employee and two job candidates filed a complaint with the Equal Employment Opportunity Commission saying Facebook is biased against Black employees and makes it more difficult for them to get hired and promoted. Among other issues, the employee said he heard the N-word said at work.

"We believe it is essential to provide all employees with a respectful and safe working environment. We take any allegations of discrimination seriously and investigate every case," a Facebook spokesman said in a statement.

The civil-rights groups have listed 10 steps they would like Facebook to take, and say each one is important. But Mr. Greenblatt said another priority among them is for regular, outside audits of identity-based hate speech and misinformation on the company's platforms, with the results made available publicly.

Facebook's work in this area includes embedding civil rights expertise on teams across policy and product, the company said.

Whether Facebook will agree to any of the groups' specific recommendations is far from certain. Facebook executives, including Carolyn Everson, vice president of its Global Business Group, previously told advertisers that the company wouldn't change its policies based on revenue pressure.

Mr. Greenblatt said the boycott wasn't about making a dent in Facebook's ad revenue, which totaled $69.7 billion last year, mostly from small and medium-size companies. The goal is to get the company's attention and encourage change, he said.

Advertisers that have paused spending on Facebook and Instagram include Unilever PLC, Clorox Co., Starbucks Corp., Ford Motor Co., Microsoft Corp., Coca-Cola Co., Levi Strauss & Co. and Verizon Communications Inc. But not every one of them is a member of the boycott campaign, and may have different priorities.

Some of the boycott organizers' recommendations speak more directly to advertising concerns, including broadening Facebook's brand-safety tools and providing more refunds when ads appear next to objectionable content.

Facebook issues refunds when ads run in videos and some other content formats that violate its policies, but the policy doesn't include ads that run next to Facebook's main news feed, according to a person familiar with the matter.

Other steps requested of Facebook by the boycott organizers include the creation of an internal system to automatically flag hateful content in private groups for human review, and the finding and removing of public and private groups focused on white supremacy, violent conspiracies, vaccine misinformation and other objectionable content.

Facebook addressed some of the groups' requests in a blog post on Wednesday, describing some of the steps it has taken and its plans for countering hate speech and misinformation, as well as for ensuring a safer environment for advertisers. The company said it already generates reports on suspected hate speech and funnels them to reviewers with training in identity-based hate policies in 50 markets and 30 languages.

It also said it is exploring ways to make users who moderate groups on Facebook more accountable for the content in those groups.

On Tuesday, Facebook also classified a large segment of the boogaloo movement as a dangerous organization and banned it from its network for "actively promoting violence against civilians, law enforcement and government officials and institutions."

Civil rights leaders said they had notified Facebook earlier about the presence of this movement on its platforms.

"Facebook had a knowledge of the growing boogaloo presence on their site and they did nothing about it," said Mr. Johnson of the NAACP. "What must happen is a change in their algorithm so those white supremacists and hate groups are not directed at their targeted audiences."

Facebook said it has removed boogaloo content when it has identified a clear call for violence, including pulling more than 800 posts in the last two months.

Earlier this week, Facebook announced it would include the prevalence of hate speech as a data point in its Community Standards Enforcement Report, through which the platform shares updates on its progress combating content that violates its policies. The reports are assembled and issued by Facebook, which said it would now release those reports quarterly.

Mr. Zuckerberg previously said Facebook would look to open its content moderation systems for external audit. The company also agreed to a new outside audit by the Media Rating Council, the ad industry's measurement watchdog, which will evaluate Facebook's content monetization and brand-safety tools and practices.

Facebook has said that 90% of the hate speech it removes is found by its artificial-intelligence tools before users report it.

Mr. Robinson, the Color of Change president, said that doesn't account for possible hate-speech that goes undetected.

Deepa Seetharaman contributed to this article.

Write to Sahil Patel at sahil.patel@wsj.com


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