Facebook to ban US census interference to allay undercount worries

  • TECH
  • Monday, 01 Jul 2019

Facebook acknowledged this week it had 'paused' some elements of its 'graph search'. — AFP Relaxnews

Facebook Inc will ban content that misrepresents the 2020 US census to suppress participation by minority communities, the latest step by the social media company to quell criticism from civil rights advocates. 

Facing accusations that it hasn’t done enough to curb efforts aimed at discouraging minorities, Facebook said on June 30 it’s developing a policy to be unveiled later this year that would prohibit distortions of census requirements, methods or logistics in postings. 

The policy is among several changes Facebook announced in a report on its continuing civil rights audit, which is reviewing discrimination and biases on the social media platform. The study was conducted by civil liberties advocate Laura Murphy and Relman, Dane & Colfax PLLC, a law firm handling anti-discrimination issues. A final report is due next year. 

“An accurate census count is crucial to governments for functions like distributing federal funds and to businesses and researchers,” chief operating officer Sheryl Sandberg said in a blog post. “That’s why we’re going to treat next year’s census like an election – with people, policies, and technology in place to protect against census interference.” 

Under fire 

Tech companies like Facebook, Twitter Inc and Google’s YouTube have come under fire for not doing enough to curb disinformation, hate speech and terrorist propaganda. Facebook removed 2.2 billion fake accounts in the first quarter, and takes down 65% of hate speech content, the company has said. 

Sandberg and other executives have been meeting with civil rights groups and politicians for months to discuss the audit in response to intense scrutiny in recent years for its content policies. 

The company’s control over what users can share – and what they can’t – has been a key issue for those who believe Facebook has too much power. The company says it’s in the process of building a new oversight board that will review controversial decisions made by the company’s content moderators. 

The company also said it’s created a civil rights task force made up of top corporate executives, senior leaders and other experts to address civil rights issues including concerns raised by outside groups. Sandberg will lead the task force. 

Facebook released the report three days after the US Supreme Court halted the Trump administration’s plan to include a citizenship question on the 2020 census, prompting President Donald Trump to say he’ll explore trying to delay the survey that under law must be conducted next year. 

Federal funding 

Activists worry that states with large immigrant populations – such as Arizona, California, Florida, Illinois, New York and Texas – could potentially lose out on federal funding, congressional districts or votes in the Electoral College if minorities are under counted. 

The US Census Bureau is working with tech giants such as Facebook, Alphabet Inc’s Google, Twitter and Microsoft Corp to combat misleading information related to the annual headcount, the bureau said. The move followed independent investigations that found that Russian operatives seeking to influence the 2016 presidential election through social media heavily focused on blacks. 

Algorithm training 

Facebook pledged to use “proactive detection technology” to identify content that may violate its census interference policy. The company is training its algorithms to check for misinformation, creating a team responsible for developing and rolling out new tools and hiring a consultant to train employees to check census-related content, the report said. 

In addition to the census policy, Facebook said it would ban ads that expressly encourage Americans not to vote. It’s also creating new search databases to track ads for housing, employment and credit in response to reports and lawsuits accusing the social media company of allowing advertisers to discriminate against some users. 

Facebook also said it’s considering other changes to its content review process including letting some of its reviewers specialise in hate speech rather than having to check potentially problematic posts against all of Facebook’s content policies. Currently, Facebook bans statements supporting white supremacy, white nationalism and other hateful content related to race, ethnicity and religion. 

Civil rights groups have complained that posts condemning hate speech have been improperly removed, which the report blamed on internal tools mistaking them for posts that violated Facebook’s standards. Facebook said it’s updating the tools to “better highlight important context” to help make those decisions. 

More questions 

The auditors’ report included recommendations that Facebook hasn’t yet agreed to adopt, including eliminating a “humour exemption” from its hate speech policy. The auditors also urged Facebook to expand its ban on white nationalism to include content that espouses the ideology even if the term isn’t mentioned. 

“The truth is Facebook knows it needs to do more," Murphy, the report’s author, said in an interview about some of their proposals. “We’re on Mount Everest, but we’re not on the summit." 

They recommend Facebook prohibit efforts to organise harassment campaigns on its platform and better understand the conditions facing activists and journalists who are more vulnerable to such harassment. 

Rashad Robinson, executive director of racial justice group Colour of Change, said June 28 he has noticed a “marked” increase in the level of attention Facebook and Sandberg pay to civil rights issues but there is still more progress to be made. 

“We need to make sure this is not a one-night stand with civil rights but an ongoing relationship,” said Robinson before seeing the report. “Part of that means, they need to put ongoing energy into this work.” – Bloomberg

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