Facebook on Tuesday released the initial report prepared by its external auditor concerning the rampant speculation about anti-conservative bias at the company. More than a year ago, however, company officials privately copped to the fact that they’d failed to properly vet the man chosen to spearhead the effort, according to sources involved in the exchange.
The admission came in response to a letter sent in May 2018 by concerned members of a national civil rights organization after Facebook announced that former U.S. Senator Jon Kyl would lead the external review, a process that Facebook began in an attempt to assuage prominent conservative figures loudly accusing its staff of secretly colluding to silence right-leaning voices—allegations that Gizmodo also played a significant role in propelling.
Kyl, who served as a U.S. senator for Arizona from 1995 to 2013, has a lengthy history of hostility toward Muslims and had aligned himself publicly throughout his career with prominent anti-Muslim actors. Understandably, Muslim Advocates, the civil right group writing the letter, wanted answers: Why, for example, had Facebook chosen this ex-politician who once catered to a Dutch MP notorious for comparing the Koran to Mein Kampf?
Its response was less than reassuring.
“They said they weren’t aware of his record,” Madihha Ahussain, special counsel for Muslim Advocates, told Gizmodo. “They indicated to us that they had no idea and that, in their process of vetting, or whatever process they undergo, they didn’t come across this.”
Vice News had, by that time, published a lengthy article about Kyl that detailed his various ties to prominent Islamophobic figures, including the Dutch MP, Geert Wilders, whom Kyl had personally invited to Washington in years earlier to screen a film that equated Islam with Nazism. (Wilders was by that point already known for his intolerant views on Islam, which he had referred to, in one Guardian interview, as a “retarded culture” and “not a religion.” His Islamophobic remarks had, that same month, gotten him banned from visiting Britain.)
Kyl could not be reached for comment and an email to his law firm, Covington & Burling LLP, which also helped conduct Facebook’s review, did not receive a response.
“He has a shocking record of bigotry,” said Ahussain, whose group was stunned by Facebook’s ignorance. “They said they would notify internally the members of their team that this is who they were working with now. And, eventually, they said something like this would never happen again,” she said.
Ahussain said what’s especially distressing is that Kyl halted work on the review, at least for a few months, after Senator John McCain passed away. Governor Doug Ducey tapped Kyl to fill the vacant seat in September 2018. Kyl did not seek to keep it and resigned by year’s end. “They knew at that point what his record was and they chose to continue to have him lead the process. He’s the author of an op-ed that was released this morning on the report. So he is very clearly the public face of this process.” (Kyl published an op-ed about the audit in the Wall Street Journal on Tuesday.)
She added: “It undermines the relationship and the work that Facebook has done with groups like ours in the civil rights community. It’s a complete disgrace.”
A Facebook spokesperson declined to comment when asked about the conversation and pointed Gizmodo to news articles about Kyl partnering with Democrats on immigration reform.
The “interim” report published by Kyl and Covington on Tuesday contains no analysis of actual Facebook data or of its internal practices. Instead, it presents an assessment of the feedback collected by Kyl and others from some 133 conservative “organizations, individuals and lawmakers who either use, study, or have the potential to regulate Facebook.” Ultimately, it offers no evidence to confirm that Facebook employees have engaged in a concerted effort to restrict the speech of its conservative users.
“Kyl and team have begun meeting with people from Facebook’s policy and product teams to gain a better understanding of Facebook’s internal and external policies as well as our products and services,” the spokesperson said.
In lieu of evidence or data, this “initial” report merely confers a laundry list of perceived grievances offered up by unnamed “interviewees,” many of whom, it says, expressed concerns about how content is algorithmically displayed on Facebook; which organizations are relied upon by the company for fact-checking purposes; and the “highly subjective nature of determining what constitutes ‘hate,’” to name a few.
“Facebook’s policies and their application have the potential to restrict free expression. Given the platform’s popularity and ubiquity, this is a danger that must be taken very seriously,” the report states, adding: “Indeed, conservatives consistently expressed the view that, while platform users should be protected from harm, no one has a right to not feel offended or to be immune from criticism. Facebook has recognized the importance of our assessment and has taken some steps to address the concerns we uncovered.”
Several groups that are part of the anti-hate Change the Terms coalition—of which Muslim Advocates is one—slammed the report, and the motivation behind it, not long after it went live.
“Kyl’s report begins with a lurid fiction perpetuated within right-wing circles, that conservatives experience algorithmic bias on Facebook, without citing a single example or any evidence,” said Henry Fernandez, a senior fellow at the Center for American Progress. “As a result, this appears to be nothing more than political propaganda disseminated by a conservative leader, based on interviews with other conservative leaders and groups.”
Rashad Robinson, president of Color Of Change, an online racial justice organization, called the report an attempt to distract from the mass shootings perpetrated by white supremacists across the country. “This shameful report, coupled with the lack of meaningful, long-term civil rights infrastructure at the company, speaks volumes about Facebook’s willingness to maintain a broken business model at the expense of Black and marginalized communities,” he said.