Report: 'Facebook’s ad system can lead to biased or discriminatory results — may be well placed.'

Now let's see what happens

After two years of digging into Facebook’s policies and practices surrounding civil rights, auditors, in a 100-page document, find that “Facebook’s approach to civil rights remains too reactive and piecemeal.”

The report comes out a day after the company’s leadership met with civil rights groups, who railed against Facebook for using the Zoom conference as a “P.R. exercise,” and a week after the StopHateForProfit advertising boycott began.

“Many in the civil rights community have become disheartened, frustrated and angry after years of engagement where they implored the company to do more to advance equality and fight discrimination, while also safeguarding free expression,” the authors of the report write. 

The audit turns on Facebook at multiple corners. For instance, the writers take Mark Zuckerberg to task over his inconsistent if not narrow views of free speech

even where that has meant allowing harmful and divisive rhetoric that amplifies hate speech and threatens civil rights. Elevating free expression is a good thing, but it should apply to everyone. When it means that powerful politicians do not have to abide by the same rules that everyone else does, a hierarchy of speech is created that privileges certain voices over less powerful voices. The prioritization of free expression over all other values, such as equality and non-discrimination, is deeply troubling to the Auditors.

It also found that there is an imbalance between what gets moderated and what doesn’t on the platform. The auditors show how:  

Facebook has no qualms about reining in speech by the proponents of the anti-vaccination movement, or limiting misinformation about COVID -19, but when it comes to voting, Facebook has been far too reluctant to adopt strong rules to limit misinformation and voter suppression. With less than five months before a presidential election, it confounds the Auditors as to why Facebook has failed to grasp the urgency of interpreting existing policies to make them effective against suppression and ensuring that their enforcement tools are as effective as Facebook’s Civil Rights Audit 10 possible. Facebook’s failure to remove the Trump voting-related posts and close enforcement gaps seems to reflect a statement of values that protecting free expression is more important than other stated company values.”

In a blog post Wednesday morning, Facebook’s COO Sheryl Sandberg wrote: 

What has become increasingly clear is that we have a long way to go. As hard as it has been to have our shortcomings exposed by experts, it has undoubtedly been a really important process for our company. We would urge companies in our industry and beyond to do the same.

There is praise sprinkled throughout the audit, as the writers acknowledge Facebook is increasing its in-house civil rights expertise, hiring voting and census consultants to develop training, and bringing “civil rights knowledge on core teams.”

There are some clear steps the writers say that Facebook can take to work better and faster around civil rights, and perhaps unsurprisingly, the company’s advertising platform is at the center. (Read chapters 5 and 6 of the report.)

After laying out the work Facebook has done over the last couple years to address its ad system, mainly in response to lawsuits around advertising practices (for example in March 2019, Facebook settled discrimination lawsuits brought by the National Fair Housing Alliance, Communications Workers of America, the American Civil Liberties Union, and private parties), the auditors write:

it is important to note that these improvements have not fully resolved the civil rights community’s discrimination concerns. Most of the changes Facebook made in 2019 focused on the targeting of ads and the choices advertisers were making on the front end of the advertising process; civil rights advocates remain concerned about the back end of Facebook’s advertising process: ad delivery. 

The conclusion of the role its ad platform has in civil rights is, “that Facebook’s ad system can lead to biased or discriminatory results — may be well placed. And while civil rights advocates certainly do not want Facebook to get it wrong when it comes to data about sensitive personal characteristics or measuring algorithmic fairness, they are concerned that it is taking Facebook too long to get it right — and harm is being done in the interim.” 

As the industry looks at, if not to, Facebook as the most powerful advertising platform on the planet, companies should also keep a watchful eye on TikTok, as with 2 billion downloads, it’s becoming clear that the next digital battlefront will happen on that platform. 

This morning, TikTok took a well-worn page out of the social platform playbook introducing a self-serve ad platform for small businesses. 

According to Reuters:

Wednesday’s global launch of the self-serve ad platform, which had previously been in beta testing, will include a music library and video-editing tools to help brands make ads that match the style of TikTok videos.

The app said it will also provide $100 million in free ad credits globally, which small businesses can apply for as they have been particularly hard-hit by the coronavirus pandemic.

But this comes on the heels of some challenges for the social video site. This week alone, the State Department cautioned that it will be “looking at” banning the Chinese upstart platform, along with other Chinese apps. In an interview on Monday with Fox News, Secretary of State Mike Pompeo said:

"With respect to Chinese apps on people's cell phones, I can assure you the United States will get this one right too, Laura. I don't want to get out in front of the President [Donald Trump], but it's something we're looking at."

And on Tuesday, the Federal Trade Commission and the U.S. Justice Department are looking into allegations TikTok “failed to live up to a 2019 agreement aimed at protecting children’s privacy,” according to Reuters.

Both of which came a week or so after India outright banned TikTok. Of TikTok’s 2+ billion downloads, 611 million came from India.

With many societal problems exacerbated, if not created by, these platforms, I keep thinking of the end of the classic Matthew Broderick 1980s film, War Games:

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Sam Cooke, “A Change is Gonna Come”

Some interesting links:

  • Post Office Delivery Trucks Keep Catching on Fire (Vice)

  • Sweden Has Become the World’s Cautionary Tale (NYT)

  • The Trade Desk CEO Is ‘Not Convinced’ Google Will Get Rid of Third-Party Cookies (Adweek)

  • Advertising Professionals Rethink Return-To-Office Schedules (MediaPost)

  • 1 in 4 men think women’s equality has come at their expense (Fortune)

  • ‘My white colleagues are looking to me for answers’: Confessions of a Black ad tech exec (Digiday)