Facebook allows white supremacists to spread violent threats while censoring Black Lives Matter posts and activists of color, according to civil rights groups that called on the technology company to fix its “racially biased” moderation system.
“Activists in the Movement for Black Lives have routinely reported the takedown of images discussing racism and during protests, with the justification that it violates Facebook’s Community Standards,” the groups wrote in a letter on Wednesday to CEO Mark Zuckerberg and director of global policy Joel Kaplan. “At the same time, harassment and threats directed at activists based on their race, religion and sexual orientation is thriving on Facebook.”
Co-signed by a coalition of more than 70 social and racial justice organizations, the letter urged Facebook to adopt reforms that would better target abusive content and harassment but also stop censoring political speech.
The campaign, led by Color of Change, Center for Media Justice, SumOfUs.org and Daily Kos, comes at a time when Facebook is under intense scrutiny over the way its algorithms and moderators choose to permit and remove content.
The corporation has repeatedly been accused of censorship in recent months, including of users critical of Donald Trump, of historic war photos, of citizens live-streaming encounters with police, of journalists who expose racism and of famous artwork with nudity.
But users who report violent and racist language and overt threats often have a hard time getting Facebook to respond. Critics argue that with both censorship and harassment, Facebook only corrects errors in high-profile cases covered by the media, making use of the platform a daily nightmare for many regular users, especially people of color targeted by trolls.
“These posts are threatening our lives,” said Malkia Cyril, executive director of the Center for Media Justice, who monitors threats posted on Black Lives Matter Facebook pages. “To be bombarded by this hateful violent rhetoric day in and day out … the photos of lynchings, photos of dead black people at the hands of white Ku Klux Klan members … it’s vicious. It’s scary.”
The coalition, which includes the ACLU, sent an earlier letter in October, suggesting that Facebook establish a “streamlined widely publicized appeals process” for censorship cases; increase transparency about its policies and provide data on how it removes content; and allow for an “external audit”.
In December, Facebook released a statement in response, which activists said did not address civil rights campaigners’ concerns.
The company’s lengthy reply, authored by Kaplan, outlined its existing policies in detail and largely failed to commit to act on the recommendations.
“Their response has been woefully inadequate,” Cyril said. “What you’re doing is not working. It’s tantamount to neglect and racism itself.”
On Wednesday, Cyril provided the Guardian with links to four Facebook groups promoting white supremacy along with screenshots of seven individual posts with blatantly racist messages, including one that said “WHAT’S HANGIN’ NIGGA” with a lynching photo; an image of a slave auction with the caption “The First Black Friday Sale”; and a photo of a skeleton captioned “Ever since Trayvon became white he’s been a good boy” (referencing the unarmed black teenagerkilled by a neighborhood watch volunteer).
Cyril said she reported all the photos and pages to Facebook, which determined that they complied with the company’s standards.
Facebook did, however, remove a post from a black woman that said: “white folks when racism happens in public YOUR SILENCE IS VIOLENCE”, according to a screenshot from Cyril.
Facebook did not respond to a request for comment about the specific examples, but a spokesperson said in an email: “We value input from our community. We have received the letter and are reviewing it.”
Facebook’s content moderation challenges also extend to its role in spreading fake news and its difficulties regulating live videos that feature violence.
“Some of this is life or death,” said Reem Suleiman, SumOfUs.org campaigner, referencing the case of Korryn Gaines, a Baltimore woman who live-streamed her standoff with police last year. At the request of law enforcement, Facebook shut down the video and officers eventually killed her.
“People turn to Facebook to document human rights abuses and police brutality,” Suleiman added.
Sihame Assbague, a journalist and activist in France, said users speaking out against racism regularly have their Facebook accounts censored and that her page has been taken down on numerous occasions.
“It’s very strange. Things that are racist do not get suspended,” she said, noting one user was censored for anti-semitism after writing a post against anti-semitism.
Activists have argued that Facebook, one of the most valuable companies in the world, has the resources to address these deep flaws, but has failed to make the issue a priority.
Cyril said the lack of diversity within the corporation was partly to blame. Black employees accounted for just 3% of senior US leadership, according to 2016 figures.
“When you already have a company that woefully underrepresents black people and communities of color in general on their staff, you are challenged to respond to concerns of racism.”