With advertiser boycott growing, lawmakers press Facebook on white supremacy

In a new letter to Mark Zuckerberg, three Democratic lawmakers pressed the Facebook chief executive for accountability on his company’s role in amplifying white supremacy and allowing violent extremists, like those in “boogaloo” groups, to organize on its platform.

Citing the “long-overdue” national reckoning around racial injustice, Senators Mazie Hirono (D-HI), Mark Warner (D-VA), and Bob Menendez (D-NJ) wrote to Zuckerberg in an effort to highlight the rift between Facebook’s stated policies and its track record.

“The United States is going through a long-overdue examination of the systemic racism prevalent in our society. Americans of all races, ages and backgrounds have bravely taken to the streets to demand equal justice for all,” the senators wrote.

“While Facebook has attempted to publicly align itself with this movement, its failure to address the hate spreading on its platform reveals significant gaps between Facebook’s professed commitment to racial justice and the company’s actions and business interests.”

The letter demands answers to a number of questions, some of which are relatively superficial asks for further commitments from Facebook to enforce its existing rules. But a few hit on something more interesting, calling on Zuckerberg to name the Facebook employee whose job explicitly addresses the spread of white supremacy on the platform and asking the company to elaborate on the role that Joel Kaplan, vice president of global public policy and Facebook’s most prominent conservative voice, played in shaping the company’s approach to extremist content.

The senators also ask if Kaplan influenced Facebook’s puzzling decision to include The Daily Caller, the right-wing news site co-created by Tucker Carlson and linked to white supremacists, as a partner in its fact-checking program. A recent petition from racial justice group Color of Change also singled out Kaplan, calling for Facebook to fire him. “Change starts at the top and Joel Kaplan needs to go,” the petition’s authors wrote in their own letter to Zuckerberg.

The senators’ final question includes a thinly veiled threat to Section 230 of the Communications Decency Act, a law protecting platforms from legal liability for user generated content. Last month, President Trump launched his own attack against the vital legal shield, which makes internet businesses possible and also undergirds the modern social internet as we know it.

The letter from lawmakers comes as Facebook faces a fresh wave of scrutiny around its platform policies from the #StopHateforProfit campaign. Launched by a group of civil rights organizations like the Anti-Defamation League, Color of Change and the NAACP, the Facebook advertising boycott has swelled to encompass a surprising array of huge mainstream brands including Coca-Cola, Best Buy, Ford and Verizon. Other brands on board include Adidas, Ben & Jerry’s, Reebok, REI, Patagonia and Vans.

While the unlikely mix of companies likely represents a similarly heterogenous mixture of motivations for temporarily suspending their Facebook ad spending, the initiative does make specific policy demands. On its webpage, the campaign advocates for some specific product changes, calling on Facebook to remove private groups centered on white supremacy and violent conspiracies, disable its recommendation engine for more hate and conspiracy groups and to hire a “C-suite level executive” who specializes in civil rights.

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