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Color Of Change Responds to Facebook’s Civil Rights Audit

For Immediate Release: July 8, 2020

Color Of Change Responds to Facebook’s Civil Rights Audit

NATIONWIDE — Color Of Change began its campaign against Facebook in 2015, when it successfully pushed the online platform to protect Black activists who were doxxed by white nationalist groups. The organization’s demands for accountability following the murder of Korryn Gaines in 2016 — and Facebook’s collaboration with Baltimore County Police moments before — grew into a call for a civil rights audit, first made in meetings with Facebook leadership in 2017. In 2018, Color Of Change worked in partnership with civil rights groups to secure the public release of the civil rights audit after reporting showed Facebook attempted to discredit Color Of Change through its contract with Definers. Throughout this process, Color Of Change offered private and public feedback to Facebook’s progress on the civil rights audit, including responses to the first and second updates.

Today, in response to the final report of Facebook’s civil rights audit, President Rashad Robinson released this statement:

“The civil rights audit is a product of years of consistent pressure in the face of great resistance and attacks from one of the world’s most powerful companies. Even the public release of the audit, including the first two updates, is a result of Color Of Change’s meeting with Sheryl Sandberg in November 2018, after it was exposed that Facebook hired a PR firm that trafficked in anti-Semitic and anti-Black stereotypes to malign our work. Without this important step in ensuring the transparency of the audit, we would not have this record of what Facebook has done, or failed to do, on issues pertaining to safety of Black people and marginalized communities. But it took a growing collective of civil society, researchers, and advocates to push Facebook’s leadership to articulate civil rights as an urgent value and priority for the company at least in words, if not always in action.

Throughout this process, we’ve forced Facebook to expand its appeals process and address publicly its discriminatory censorship practices, expand policies against voter suppression and Census misinformation, and adopt content moderation policies against white nationalists. Even if not always enforced, the company’s policy changes demonstrated to the public, its own employees, and regulators that the only thing missing from Facebook leadership’s efforts is their own political will and courage. Ridding the platform of hate and misinformation against Black people only became a priority when there was a PR crisis to endure.

Laura Murphy, whose leadership on the audit and attempt at progress we value greatly, correctly assesses that Facebook’s approach to civil rights is incremental and counterproductive. Notably absent from Mark Zuckerberg and Sheryl Sandberg is a commitment to establish a civil rights position at the C-suite level, a long-standing demand of Color Of Change and other civil rights leaders. While the Vice President position is an important step, their office needs to be provided with full resources to be effective. Without this, there is no reason to believe that Facebook will prioritize civil rights protections moving forward, especially as executive leadership backchannels with Trump and far-right extremists. All we can count on is Zuckerberg pontificating about free expression, while giving a free pass to politicians to lie, sow discord, and thrive off of hate and political chaos.

As Facebook continues to amass and consolidate power, the wellbeing and safety of our democracy is at stake. In this critical moment, advertisers are realizing the costs of doing business with Facebook and are taking a stand against hate. And if Facebook won’t create rules for the platform that protect free elections and public safety, then Congress must intervene to ensure civil rights are protected. Our work continues with or without Facebook’s collaboration; we won’t rest until the platform is a safe and just place for Black people.”

Backgrounder: A Timeline of Engagement Between Color Of Change and Facebook

2015 – Engagement over Doxxing

Color Of Change’s work with Facebook stretches back to 2015, when it successfully pushed the online platform to protect Black activists who were being doxxed by white supremacist and white nationalist groups. Color Of Change stepped in after Facebook had failed to act, after repeated flags by activists and those personally affected.

2016  – Building Pressure on Facebook’s Surveillance of Black People

Color Of Change expanded their interactions with Facebook after the platform removed the account of Korryn Gaines, in the middle of a five-hour standoff that ended in the death of the 23-year-old by the Baltimore County police department. Facebook had granted an emergency request from the Baltimore County police department to take her social media accounts offline.

On August 22, 2016, Color Of Change sent a letter to Facebook in response to Gaines’ death, demanding they take accountability for enabling law enforcement’s violent relationship with communities of color. Color Of Change called on Facebook to clarify their position on collaborating with police and law enforcement to censor data and video, and institute a policy that protects individual civil liberties and is transparent and accountable to the public.

Gaines’ example was not an outlier. Facebook – as Color Of Change reminded them in a letter cosigned with the American Civil Liberties Union (ACLU) and Center for Media Justice (CMJ) – consistently allowed law enforcement to use their products for surveillance, including the monitoring of information about political, religious, and social views; racial backgrounds; locations; and associations or activities of any individual or group of individuals.

After ACLU research exposed how Facebook was allowing social media surveillance companies to exploit Facebook's data, Color Of Change—along with the ACLU and CMJ—pressured Facebook to crack down on these companies. Facebook consulted with Color Of Change and partners, beginning in October 2016, on best practices to pull API from social media surveillance companies, which was officially announced early 2017. This move demonstrated Color Of Change’s power to shape Facebook’s policies.

2017 – Dialogue and Meeting with Facebook On The Need For a Civil Rights Audit

Color Of Change continued pushing Facebook on their censorship of Korryn Gaines and Black users and building the drumbeat for a civil rights audit.

And in the wake of foreign electoral interference and discriminatory ads and hate on the platform, Color Of Change launched another campaign to publicly disclose the ads, accounts, and posts traced back to Russians targeting African American, LGBTQ, and Muslim communities.

Color Of Change also demanded that Facebook regularly convene a working group of civil rights organizations to solicit input on policies and processes that integrate addressing hate into Facebook’s corporate structure.

These conversations led to an in-person meeting on November 3, 2017 to specifically discuss the demands of Color Of Change and partners for Facebook to conduct a civil rights audit.

2018 – Color Of Change Wins Civil Rights Audit, and after Definers Scandal, Secures Its Public Release

After building a steady drumbeat of pressure on Facebook, Color Of Change and its partners successfully secured Facebook’s agreement – on May 2, 2018 – to a civil rights audit that would look at its impact on underrepresented communities and communities of color. Following the Definers scandal, Color Of Change secured more agreements from Facebook to increase transparency and accountability around the civil rights audit, including at their November 29, 2018 meeting at Menlo Park headquarters.

Run-up to Definers scandal

Color Of Change met with Facebook over ten times over the course of the year around the civil rights audit, in a good faith effort to push Facebook to implement policies that would make it a better platform for Black users and other users from marginalized communities. Color Of Change also spoke to Facebook about the Change the Terms policy platform, which if implemented and enforced, would help to reduce the presence of hateful activities and online violence that manifest in physical violence.

At the same time, Facebook was attempting to discredit Color Of Change through its contract with Definers. Read the New York Times story here.

Definers aftermath

November 19, 2018

President Rashad Robinson sends an open letter to Sheryl Sandberg  and Mark Zuckerberg, outlining the harms caused by Facebook’s work with Definers. (Read COC’s open letter to Sheryl and Mark.)

November 28, 2018

Color Of Change sends a joint letter with Leadership Conference to Facebook outlining the steps necessary to firm up the civil rights audit.(Read COC’S letter to Facebook outlining demands for civil rights audit.)

November 29, 2018

Color Of Change meets with Sheryl Sandberg, and Facebook commits to a public release of the civil rights audit, for the first time ever. (Read COC’s statement following in-person meeting with Sheryl.)

December 18, 2018

Facebook releases its first update on the civil rights audit, which failed to include any timeline, benchmarks, or accountability mechanisms for change. (Read Color Of Change’s statement in response.).

2019 – Color Of Change Wins Civil Rights Accountability Infrastructure at Facebook, Pushes for External Intervention

The civil rights town hall on September 26, 2019 will create a record of the civil rights community’s expectations for the full civil rights audit report, due by the end of the year.

Facebook released its second update to the civil rights audit on June 30, 2019. In contrast to the first update, the second–which included the creation of a civil rights accountability infrastructure headed by Chief Operating Officer Sheryl Sandberg–reflected a heightened commitment from Facebook to address civil rights concerns raised by Color Of Change. However, the lack of structural changes included in this update confirmed that outside intervention from government regulators will be necessary to ensure civil rights become an operational priority at Facebook and across large technology platforms. Read COC statement here. 

While Color Of Change continues to push Facebook on sharpening the civil rights audit, it has also been mobilizing their membership against policies that allow hate to fester on the platform and for external regulation.

  • March– In response to Facebook’s policy update on white nationalism and white separatism, Color Of Change noted that any updates must be supported by adequate content moderation guidelines and trainings, with input by civil rights and racial justice organizations.Read COC statement here. 
  • May– Color Of Change and Majority Action filed an exempt solicitation with the U.S. Securities and Exchange Commission (SEC) outlining the case to shareholders to vote “no” on Mark Zuckerberg’s nomination as chairman of the board. The filing can be viewedhere. Color Of Change argued that lasting change to address the misinformation, discrimination, violent movements and data breaches that put users, especially Black users, at risk should not be subject to the whims of a single person. Read COC/Majority Action statement here.
  • August– Following the El Paso shooting, Color Of Change criticized Facebook for continuing to provide a platform for implicit expressions of white nationalism. For example, reports found that Facebook raked in more than $5 million from the Trump campaign, in exchange for a platform to spout rhetoric stoking fear about immigrants and people of color, using words like “caravan” and “invasion.” Read COC statement here. The same month, Color Of Change widely condemned the company’s release of its update to the anti-conservative bias study, co-authored with Sen. Jon Kyl, arguing that it primarily provides cover for the spread of right-wing ideology. Read COC statement here.
  • October– Facebook reverses it’s political ad policy, allowing misinformation in political advertisements, even if deemed inaccurate by the platform’s third-party verifiers. Color Of Change President Rashad Robinson slammed the decision, warning that “Facebook’s lax attitude toward blatant misinformation will be exploited to drive voter suppression.” Full COC statement available here.
  • December-After COC’s Rashad Robinson and other civil rights leaders joined Facebook CEO Zuckerberg and senior staff for deep table discussion on the Census and voting rights issues, Facebook announced a new Census interference policy, reflective of many of the public demands made by civil rights leaders following the release of the June civil rights audit progress report. The policy explicitly barred politicians from spreading misinformation about the Census, and content falsely intimating that taking the census could spark law enforcement related consequences of information sharing between government agencies.  COC’s full statement available here. 

2019 – Color Of Change Continues Pushing Forward, Expands Outreach to Corporate Advertisers

  • March-Facebook’s Census interference policy was tested when Trump’s re-election campaign was caught running misleading ads about the 2020 census. After being slammed by Rashad Robinson and other civil rights leaders, the offending content was finally removed.  Robinson later told the New York Timesthat “While Facebook has now committed to removing the misinforming post in question, the damage is done…going forward, harmful and misleading ads must be flagged in a pre-posting review process, not after they’ve hit hundreds, if not thousands, of news feeds.”
  • June– In early June, Trump used social media to violently threaten those protesting the murder of George Floyd — after Facebook declined to remove content in violation of their community agreements, COC’s Rashad Robinson, NAACP’s Sherilyn Ifill, and LCCHR’s Vanita Gupta rip Mark Zuckerberg and Sheryl Sandberg in a closed meeting for failures to uphold standards and policies created during the civil rights audit process. In a joint statement, the civil rights leaders specifically condemned Zuckerberg for his failure to demonstrate an “understanding of historic or modern-day voter suppression,” and refusal to “acknowledge how Facebook is facilitating Trump’s call for violence against protesters.” Later that month, Color Of Change’s Brandi Collins-Dexter testified at a joint hearing on disinformation held by The Subcommittee on Communications and Technology and the Subcommittee on Consumer Protection and Commerce of the Committee on Energy and Commerce, Collins-Dexter contended that “uncontrolled tech companies pose significant threats to democracy and freedom in the world,” and that Congress and other actors must move to “ensure that our data and physical bodies are protected on and offline.” Full testimony available here.

Late June/early July – Color Of Change partners with Sleeping Giants, the Anti-Defamation League, the NAACP, Free Press and others to call on corporations to pause advertising on Facebook for the month of July. COC and other organizers also worked with the Duke and Duchess of Sussex to push companies behind the scenes to urge Facebook to enforce its hate speech policies across the board, even in the case of political actors and in closed groups. The #StopHateForProfit campaign has since become the largest organized advertiser boycott in history, with over 1000 businesses and organizations joining the campaign. On July 7th the main organizers met with Mark Zuckerberg, Sheryl Sandberg, Chris Cox and other senior leaders at Facebook.

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