NEW JERSEY — Attorney General Gurbir Grewal Wednesday led a group of 20 Attorneys General from across the nation in calling on Facebook to take additional steps to prevent the popular social media website from being used to spread hate and disinformation. The group also urged Facebook to provide stronger support for users who fall victim to online intimidation and harassment on its platforms.
Co-led by District of Columbia Attorney General Karl Racine and Illinois Attorney General Kwame Raoul, the letter to Facebook Chairman and Chief Executive Officer Mark Zuckerberg asserted Wednesday 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.
The letter observes 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 hate-filled messaging and disinformation we’re highlighting in this letter is typically aimed at individuals because of what they look like, where they come from, what gender identity they claim, and what they believe,” Grewal said. “It is divisive and dehumanizing, and we are committed to combating it at every turn. Facebook’s own audit revealed significant shortcomings in its approach to keeping this kind of content off its platforms, promoting civil rights and discouraging discrimination. The company has espoused a desire to do better, so today we’re calling on them to ‘walk the walk.’ Facebook has ample resources to do far more than it has been doing.”
“Hate sells on Facebook,” said Division of Civil Rights (DCR) Director Rachel Wainer Apter, “and all too often the site is used to spread extremism and facilitate discrimination.” She continued: “As the Covid-19 pandemic has exposed and exacerbated systemic injustice, and as millions of Americans have joined together to protest racism and other forms of bias, it is long past due for Facebook to ensure that its platform promotes human dignity and civil rights, rather than division, dehumanization, and fear.”
The letter follows other actions by New Jersey officials to encourage Facebook to enforce policies to combat hate on its platform. In April 2019, DCR wrote to Facebook urging that it more closely monitor the Rise Up Ocean County (RUOC) Facebook page, which had been found to contain anti-Semitic content and other hate-filled posts.
Facebook ultimately removed the RUOC page, but not until February 2020, after further calls to action by Governor Murphy and Attorney General Grewal.
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 the 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 the 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 recommend 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.
The letter is one part of Attorney General Grewal and Governor Phil Murphy’s broader efforts to combat bias in New Jersey. In 2019, Lieutenant Governor Sheila Oliver signed an Executive Order convening a Task Force on Youth Bias (Task Force), headed by DCR Director Wainer Apter, after the 2018 Bias Incident Report compiled by the New Jersey State Police and the Division on Civil Rights showed a “rising tide of hate” in New Jersey. The Report noted there were 569 reported bias incidents in New Jersey in 2018 – a number higher than in any year since 2011, and that there had been a stark increase in young people involved in bias offenses.
The Task Force’s mission is to provide advice and recommendations to the Governor and the Attorney General, and to other state agencies, on strategies and actions to reduce incidents of hate and bias involving students and young adults. In addition to New Jersey, the District of Columbia and Illinois, the following states’ Attorneys General have signed today’s letter: New York, California, Connecticut, Delaware, Hawaii, Iowa, Massachusetts, Maine, Maryland, Minnesota, New Mexico, North Carolina, Pennsylvania, Rhode Island, Virginia, Vermont and Wisconsin.