Over the past decade and a half, we’ve watched Facebook mature from its halcyon era of “moving fast and breaking things” into one where it can’t seem to stop apologizing for doing exactly that. It does’t matter if it’s being implicated in multiple(!) human rights abuses, election interference, conspiracy peddling, or, well, just about anything else, the first line of defense always seems to be a well-scripted promise to do better.
Case in point: This morning, Facebook COO Sheryl Sandberg dropped a lengthy post on the platform addressing some of the ongoing hiccups that have been leaving people of color exposed to everything from harassment to targeted acts of violence. It’s worth noting that these racial whoopsies have been pointed out to the company again and again over the years, each time eliciting some variation on the same self-aggrandizing statements we’ve come to know and love.
But this time, Sandberg promises, Facebook will be making real, substantial changes—not because the national spotlight has shifted to the violence that these communities suffer on a day-to-day basis, but because, in Sandberg’s words, it’s “the right thing to do.”
I don’t want to doubt that Sheryl knows her rights from her wrongs, especially considering how she is (I assume) a flesh-and-blood human being, rather than, say, a robot hiding under under a fleshy coating and a brunette wig. But after picking apart the nearly 600 words she ostensibly typed using her real, human hands this morning, I’m starting to have my doubts.
Here, let’s go through this spiel together.
Facebook stands firmly against hate.
Being a platform where everyone can make their voice heard is core to our mission, but that doesn’t mean it’s acceptable for people to spread hate. It’s not. We have clear policies against hate – and we strive constantly to get better and faster at enforcing them.
We have made real progress over the years, but this work is never finished and we know what a big responsibility Facebook has to get better at finding and removing hateful content.
Sandberg is right on at least one point: The platform has an ever-evolving set of policies describing the different flavors of hate speech that will get a Facebooker banned from the site. And the company has, at least at first glance, gotten better at enforcing (some of) these rules: In a recent transparency report, Facebook reportedly cracked down on roughly 9.6 million posts for violating the site’s standards surrounding hate speech, compared to the roughly 5.5 million posts that were caught the previous quarter. But no one really knows how much hateful content isn’t being removed, so the scope of the problem is hard to comprehend.
In spite of moves like rolling out an anti-hate speech task force and choosing to pay its content moderators (slightly) more than the bare minimum, just about everyone—including Facebook itself—can agree that it’s doing a piss-poor job at actually upholding the content policies in a way that’s anywhere close to fair. For every report boasting the platform’s success in banning hundreds of groups for being racist and bad, there are just as many anecdotal accounts of people being banned for.... talking about how these groups are racist and bad. And as activists have been pointing out for years, these bans seem to disproportionately fall on Black users. As one of these banned folks succinctly told USA Today back in 2017, “Every black person I know who has been suspended for confronting racism on Facebook has gotten the same ‘this was a mistake’ response. It is not a mistake if it keeps happening.”
And none of these algorithmic oopsies tackle the company’s choice to deliberately let this sort of shit fly freely if—and only if—it’s coming from certain political leaders. Hell, Zuckerberg only openly took a stance against hate speech in ads last month, and it took a massive upheaval by Facebook’s own employees to prompt it.
The post continues:
Later this morning, Mark and I, alongside our team, are meeting with the organizers of the Stop Hate for Profit campaign followed by a meeting with other civil rights leaders who have worked closely with us on our efforts to address civil rights [...]
Tomorrow, the final report of our independent civil rights audit will be published – a two-year review of our policies and practices led by noted civil liberties and civil rights expert Laura W. Murphy and Megan Cacace, partner in the civil rights law firm Relman Colfax, PLLC.
Sandberg undoubtedly knows that just about every brand involved with the current campaign to “stop hate for profit” isn’t actually planning on pulling too many ad dollars from Facebook at all. She also undoubtedly knows that the civil rights audit that the platform’s been undergoing for the past two years has been called as half-assed as the apologies that spurred it in the first place.
Meanwhile, Sandberg openly admits that the platform isn’t actually obligated to act on any of the issues that might come up in the audit:
While the audit was planned and most of it carried out long before recent events, its release couldn’t come at a more important time. It has helped us learn a lot about what we could do better, and we have put many recommendations from the auditors and the wider civil rights community into practice. While we won’t be making every change they call for, we will put more of their proposals into practice soon.
In case you didn’t catch that, she’s saying that Facebook has no obligation to actually follow any of the recommendations that come out of this two-year-long review. Accordingly, the company’s been predictably evasive about which measures it’s willing to take. That leaves the door open for Zuckerberg and co. to get out of this audit making barely any substantive changes to the platform—y’know, the same way that Facebook usually does.
At the end of the day, it feels like Sandberg is asking us to expect more from the company this time around, while also expecting us to just... deal with the company leaning into the same broken machinations that got us all so pissed off in the first place. What we’re left with is a company that, at least here, is giving us a textbook non-apology: Sandberg isn’t sorry that Facebook’s fucked up so much as she’s sorry that we’re all still upset about it.