|RICHMOND (August 5, 2020) – Attorney General Mark R. Herring today joined 19 attorneys general from across the United States in calling on Facebook to take additional steps to prevent the popular social media website from being used to spread hate and disinformation. Attorney General Herring and his colleagues also urged Facebook to provide stronger support for users who fall victim to online intimidation and harassment on its platforms.
In a letter sent today to Facebook Chief Executive Officer Mark Zuckerberg and Chief Operating Officer Sheryl Sandberg, Attorney General Herring and his colleagues assert that despite its stated commitment to working to keep its user community safe, Facebook has fallen short in keeping hate content off its platforms and protecting users from online harassment.
“Unfortunately, over the past few years, we have seen how Facebook can be used as a tool to spread misinformation and hate that can have serious, real-life consequences,” said Attorney General Herring. “Especially now, when our country finds itself in a moment of tremendous social change and with an incredibly important presidential election in just a few months, Facebook must take stronger steps to further protect its users from hate and prevent its platform from being used to spread disinformation.”
The coalition’s letter highlights that the nation is presently in a moment of reckoning on issues of racial justice and civil rights. Against this backdrop, the letter states that “[p]rivate parties, organized groups and public officials continue to use Facebook to spread misinformation and project messages of hate against different groups of Americans,” with many of those messages leading to the abuse of individual Facebook users.
The letter follows the release of a Civil Rights Audit of Facebook’s practices – commissioned by the company and completed in July – that faults Facebook for failing to advance civil rights, and refusing to enforce its own policies against dangerous organizations and individuals, including white supremacists and other extremists.
Recent surveys suggest more than 40 percent of Americans have experienced some form of online harassment, and that of those victims, more than 75 percent have reported being harassed on Facebook. The letter urges Facebook to implement several reforms recommended in the Civil Rights Audit to “strengthen its commitment to civil rights and fighting disinformation and discrimination.” It further recommends steps designed to improve Facebook’s supportive services for victims.
According to today’s letter, much of the harassment reported by Facebook users focuses on characteristics protected by civil rights laws, including race, religion, ethnicity, sexual orientation, gender and gender identity, and disability.
Such harassment can include conduct like cyberstalking, doxing (maliciously publishing someone’s personal information), and swatting (filing false police reports to prompt law enforcement response targeting the victim.) The letter contends that at present, “recourse is unavailable for too many of these victims,” due to limitations on the services that Facebook offers victims, as well as other factors.
The Attorneys General acknowledge that “Facebook has—on occasion—taken action to address violations of its terms of service in cases where we have helped elevate our constituents’ concerns.” But the letter adds that many Facebook users continue to find the redress process “slow, frustrating, and ineffective.”
The reforms recommended in today’s letter, many of which are highlighted in the recent Civil Rights Audit, include calls for Facebook to:
- Aggressively enforce its policies against hate speech and organized hate organizations;
- Allow public, third-party audits of hate content and enforcement;
- Commit to an ongoing, independent analysis of Facebook’s content population scheme and the prompt development of best practices guidance; and
- Expand policies limiting inflammatory advertisements that vilify minority groups;
The Attorneys General also recommends steps to enhance Facebook supportive services including:
- Offer live real-time assistance to victims of intimidation and harassment;
- Make information about unlawful harassment and intimidation more readily available; and
- Strengthen filtering, reporting, and blocking tools.
Joining Attorney General Herring in sending today’s letter are the attorneys general of California, Connecticut, District of Columbia, Delaware, Hawaii, Illinois, Iowa, Maine, Maryland, Massachusetts, Minnesota, New Jersey, New Mexico, New York, North Carolina, Pennsylvania, Rhode Island, Vermont and Wisconsin.