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Report Slams Facebook For 'Vexing And Heartbreaking Decisions' On Free Speech

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Report Slams Facebook For 'Vexing And Heartbreaking Decisions' On Free Speech

Report Slams Facebook For 'Vexing And Heartbreaking Decisions' On Free Speech

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MARY LOUISE KELLY, HOST:

Facebook has made, quote, "vexing and heartbreaking decisions about free speech." That is according to an independent audit into how the social network handles issues such as discrimination, hate speech and election interference. Facebook asked for this investigation two years ago. Today the investigators are slamming the company and its leaders for some of their decisions.

For this week's All Tech Considered, NPR's Shannon Bond joins us. And before we get going, I should mention Facebook is a financial supporter of NPR.

Hey, Shannon.

SHANNON BOND, BYLINE: Hey, Mary Louise.

KELLY: All right, so investigators slamming decisions by leaders of Facebook. What decisions are we talking about?

BOND: Well, this is really about speech, and the most prominent example is President Trump. So recently he's put up Facebook posts falsely claiming that voting by mail is rife with fraud, and he made a really inflammatory post about the recent protests against racism. And the auditors say those posts clearly violated Facebook's own rules against voter suppression and inciting violence, but Facebook didn't take the posts down. The audit also slammed the company's policy of not fact-checking ads by politicians. That's something Facebook has gotten a lot of criticism over.

And overall, the audit says, you know, these decisions are really emblematic of how Facebook has chosen to prioritize free speech above all other values. They say that risks overshadowing gains it has made fighting discrimination. For example, it no longer allows advertisers to target housing and job ads based on age, gender or zip code.

KELLY: What is Facebook saying in response?

BOND: Well, the company, as you said, did ask for this audit. It commissioned it from Laura Murphy, a former ACLU executive in a civil rights law firm. And chief operating officer Sheryl Sandberg said today that Facebook will make some of the changes that it's recommending, including hiring a senior vice president who will make sure civil rights concerns inform decisions on products and policies. But when it comes to setting firmer boundaries on political speech, that's something CEO Mark Zuckerberg has resisted. He says Facebook is committed to free expression, even when politicians make false claims. And Facebook says it won't adopt every recommendation being made in this report.

KELLY: Now, this audit drops as another development plays out. All of these brands - I think we're at more than 1,000 now - pausing their advertisements on Facebook in the name of protesting hate speech. Are any of them - are the organizers of that boycott, are they speaking up today?

BOND: Yep. And what I'm hearing is a lot of skepticism about Facebook. Here's Rashad Robinson. He's president of Color of Change, one of the groups behind the boycott.

RASHAD ROBINSON: The recommendations coming out of the audit are as good as the action that Facebook ends up taking. Otherwise, it is a road map without a vehicle and without the resources to move. And that is not useful for any of us.

BOND: Another boycott organizer I spoke with today is Jonathan Greenblatt of the Anti-Defamation League. He told me he thinks the boycott is just going to keep growing - and remember; it's already gone global - until Facebook takes real action on their demands.

KELLY: Yeah. It sounds like we now have this damning audit, this big boycott, pressure from many directions on Facebook to change its ways.

BOND: That's right. And civil rights groups told me they're not going to ease the pressure on Facebook. I spoke to Vanita Gupta. She's head of the Leadership Conference on Civil and Human Rights, and here's what she had to say about the audit.

VANITA GUPTA: It is a work in progress, clearly, and this report, in some ways, is a start and not a finish for the civil rights community.

BOND: So Gupta and other leaders I spoke to, you know, they say it's just so urgent that Facebook act now because the presidential election is just a few months away. That's something the auditors also say they're really worried about. They say it in the audit. They say if Facebook doesn't get more serious about enforcing its policies, holding politicians to the same standards as other users, that will open the door to more voter suppression, even calls for violence on Facebook.

KELLY: Thank you, Shannon.

BOND: Thanks so much.

KELLY: NPR's Shannon Bond.

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