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Facebook will examine whether it treats Black users differently

Facebook's parent company, Meta, is studying whether its platforms treat users differently based on race.
AFP via Getty Images
Facebook's parent company, Meta, is studying whether its platforms treat users differently based on race.

The parent company of Facebook and Instagram is looking into whether its platforms treat users differently based on race, after years of criticism particularly from Black users and its own employees about racial bias.

"There are a lot of members of systemically and historically marginalized communities who feel that their experience on our platforms is different," said Roy Austin Jr., vice president of civil rights at Meta, formerly known as Facebook.

That includes Black users who say their posts about racism have been taken down for violating the company's hate speech rules. Facebook also apologized in September after a flaw in its artificial intelligence software led to a video of Black men being labeled as "primates."

Meta is starting by tracking the race of its platforms' users, which Austin described as "a huge step to moving from the anecdotal to the data driven." He said the work would allow the company to understand how people's experiences on Facebook may differ by race, a first step toward addressing any problems.

"Until we do this kind of data collection, we can't actually answer that question one way or another," he said.

The challenge for the company is collecting demographic information in a way that doesn't violate users' privacy. Meta released a paper detailing how it plans to combine estimates based on people's ZIP codes and last names with surveys where people identify their race or ethnicity.

The announcement came as Meta gave an update on its response to a civil rights audit the company commissioned following widespread accusations that its products promote discrimination.

The 2020 report, which came after two years of investigation by independent auditors, slammed the company for putting free speech ahead of other values, a decision the auditors said undermined its efforts to curb hate speech and voter suppression.

The auditors said the company made "vexing and heartbreaking decisions," including refusing to take down posts by then-President Donald Trump that "clearly violated" the company's policies on hate and violent speech and voter suppression; exempting politicians from third-party fact-checking; and being "far too reluctant to adopt strong rules to limit [voting] misinformation and voter suppression."

Meta hired Austin, a veteran civil rights lawyer who worked at the Justice Department during the Obama administration, in January in response to the audit. In its update on Thursday, the company said it's implemented more than half of the auditors' recommendations, which ranged from hiring more staff to work on civil rights to updating its content moderation and advertising policies, and is making progress on or evaluating most of the rest.

Austin told NPR the biggest change Meta has made is creating the 10-person civil rights team he leads.

"I've been able to hire a team of people who know and understand civil rights law, know and understand voting and civic engagement, know and understand product, know and understand artificial intelligence, know and understand law enforcement and hate speech," he said. "It is incredibly important to have those voices in the rooms that that we are in."

He says his team is giving input on the decisions Meta makes and the products it builds.

But outside groups that have long criticized the company's track record on civil rights and discrimination said Meta is still falling short.

"We appreciate [Roy Austin]'s leadership and the goals of Facebook Civil Rights Team. However, this progress report simply isn't enough," the Anti-Defamation League, which was part of a coalition that organized an advertiser boycott of Facebook over hate speech last year, tweeted on Thursday. "Ultimately, we need to see real transparency and a credible independent expert review."

The ADL pointed to documents disclosed by whistleblower Frances Haugen showing Facebook has failed to take down hate speech, even though such posts violate its rules. And it said the company should hire more staff focused on civil rights, especially as it shifts its focus to building a new immersive virtual platform called the metaverse.

"Of Facebook's [60,000] employees, fewer than 10 are on the Civil Rights Team. Facebook must put civil rights expertise on EVERY team, including those building the Metaverse," the ADL tweeted. "If Facebook is trying to earn credibility, this clearly missed the mark."

Editor's note: Meta pays NPR to license NPR content.

Copyright 2022 NPR. To see more, visit https://www.npr.org.

Shannon Bond is a business correspondent at NPR, covering technology and how Silicon Valley's biggest companies are transforming how we live, work and communicate.