Facebook Must Better Police Online Hate, State Attorneys General Say

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Twenty state attorneys general on Wednesday called on Facebook to better prevent messages of hate, bias and disinformation from spreading, and said the company needed to provide more help to users facing online abuse.

In a letter to the social media giant, the officials said they regularly encountered people facing online intimidation and harassment on Facebook. They outlined seven steps the company should take, including allowing third-party audits of hate content and offering real-time assistance to users.

“We hope to work with you to ensure that fewer individuals suffer online harassment and discrimination, and that it is quickly and effectively addressed when they do,” said the letter, which was addressed to Facebook’s chief executive, Mark Zuckerberg, and its chief operating officer, Sheryl Sandberg. The officials who signed the letter, all of them Democrats, represent states including New York, New Jersey, Illinois and California, as well as the District of Columbia.

The letter adds to the rising pressure facing Mr. Zuckerberg and his company to stop disinformation and harassment on Facebook. Civil rights leaders, advertisers and some of the company’s own employees have criticized Facebook for failing to curtail the spread of noxious content. Extremists and conspiracists have turned to social media — most often Facebook, Twitter and YouTube — to circulate falsehoods about the coronavirus pandemic, the coming presidential election and Black Lives Matter protests.

Facebook and other social media companies have made some changes to dismantle misinformation and hate on their services. Last month, Twitter announced that it would remove thousands of accounts associated with the fringe conspiracy movement QAnon, saying their messages could lead to harm and violated Twitter policy. In June, Facebook took down a network of accounts tied to boogaloo, an antigovernment movement in the United States that encourages violence. That same month, YouTube banned six channels for violating its policies, including those of two prominent white supremacists, David Duke and Richard Spencer.

But according to the attorneys general, Facebook in particular has not done enough. The officials pointed to Facebook’s recent Civil Rights Audit — which found that advertisers could still run ads that painted a religious group as a threat to the “American way of life” — as evidence that the social network had fallen short.

“Facebook has a hate speech, discrimination, disinformation problem,” Attorney General Gurbir S. Grewal, of New Jersey, who led the letter, said in an interview. “The way I view it, as an attorney general, is that it directly affects public safety in my state, that the groups that are allowed to find community online, on Facebook, allow hate to be normalized.”

Danielle Keats Citron, a law professor at Boston University and the author of “Hate Crimes in Cyberspace,” said she was “grateful to see these A.G.s step forward and demand that Facebook do better.”

Facebook needs “far more sunshine and oversight,” Professor Citron said. “They need to enforce their hate speech policies fairly including against white supremacists, and they need to audit their algorithms to curtail their optimization for extremism.”

Daniel Roberts, a spokesman for Facebook, said in a statement that the company was investing billions of dollars to combat hate speech and misinformation. “We share the Attorneys General’s goal of ensuring people feel safe on the internet and look forward to continuing our work with them,” he said.

The attorneys general asked that Facebook more aggressively enforce its existing policies against hate; allow public, third-party audits of hate content and enforcement; commit to an independent analysis of the social network’s content and algorithms; and expand policies limiting inflammatory ads that could vilify minority groups.

They also called on Facebook to provide supportive services for people harassed on its services. According to a 2017 survey from the Pew Research Center, more than 40 percent of Americans have experienced some form of online harassment, and of those, more than three-quarters reported being harassed on Facebook.

The attorneys general said that the company’s response has been too slow or weak when people flagged harassment. The officials said that the social network should provide immediate assistance.

Mr. Grewal said the letter was inspired in part by Facebook’s delay in removing a local page, Rise Up Ocean County, that appeared to stoke anti-Semitic rhetoric on the social network. Mr. Grewal said it took 10 months for Facebook to completely take it down — after violent attacks against Jews in Jersey City, N.J., in December.

Mr. Grewal said the state attorneys general expected Facebook to react much faster to the letter. “We won’t be stopped,” he said.

And if there were to be another delay, he said, “we always have a variety of legal tools at our disposal.”

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