Why Facebook is “the front line in fighting hate today”

As the US faces a renewed reckoning on racial justice, Facebook has faced unprecedented pressure over the past few weeks to stop the spread of hate speech on its platform.

One of the main people responsible for ratcheting up that pressure is Jonathan Greenblatt, CEO of the Anti-Defamation League. Greenblatt, along with leaders of several other civil rights groups, has organized a historic advertiser boycott of Facebook that has so far prompted more than 1,000 companies, including Starbucks and Unilever, to stop advertising on the social media giant until it makes certain changes. The campaign, called Stop Hate for Profit, is pushing Facebook to appoint a C-level executive with expertise in civil rights and remove Facebook groups devoted to things like Holocaust denialism, among other things.

“We’ve been at this work of fighting anti-Semitism and bigotry in all forms for over 100 years,” Greenblatt told Recode in an exclusive interview last week. “And frankly, we believe that Facebook is the front line in fighting hate today.”

Instead of making incremental promises of progress, Facebook instead needs to fundamentally reform, Greenblatt told Recode.

“Mark Zuckerberg has really elevated freedom of expression above all else,” Greenblatt said. “But I think that we need to realize that hateful words can have harmful results.”

Here’s what this prominent civil rights leader said Facebook needs to do at a turning point in its years-long struggle to reduce hate speech.

The following transcript has been lightly edited for clarity and length.

Facebook can’t rely on Washington to tell it how to fight the hate speech flourishing on its platform

Shirin Ghaffary

Facebook is facing unprecedented levels of criticism right now over how it handles hate speech. At the same time, the company has said it wants to stay true to its values around free expression. And there’s pressure from Republicans that accuse Facebook of having [alleged] anti-conservative bias when it moderates political speech. So what do you think the ethical move is here? What do you think Facebook should do?

Jonathan Greenblatt

First of all, I just need to say right up front, ADL is the oldest anti-hate organization in the world. We’ve been at this work of fighting anti-Semitism, bigotry in all forms, for over 100 years. And we’ve been intensely focused on Silicon Valley, certainly, since I started as CEO in 2015. And frankly, we believe that Facebook is the front line in fighting hate today.

I’m laying all this out because we actively work with the company, because you know, I’m a former product manager. I used to run consumer products at a Kleiner Perkins company called Realtor.com. And then I incubated [online volunteer database All for Good] inside Google. So I’ve worked in the Valley, I’ve had teams of engineers, I know full well that the pace of innovation is so great that we can’t leave it to the legislators. We are much better advantaged to working with the companies, and building, as a design principle, anti-hate into these products, embedded into these platforms, making it part of their practices. That’s going to be a more efficient and effective way than waiting for Washington, which can take years.

All that being said as background, and so to be more specific, we’ve worked with Facebook for years.

We work with their engineers, we work with their policy teams. We work with them on a regular basis helping them to delete content, helping them to identify extremists, helping them sort through issues.

All of this is relevant. Because for starters, I don’t agree with the characterization that you laid out — which clearly has been presented by people with an agenda. There is nothing political in pushing back against prejudice.

I’m sorry, I don’t believe that the “alt-right” represents any reasonable rendition of the political spectrum.

This president and his predilections notwithstanding, we are in a new kind of environment, where we have to countenance, “How will this fly with the white supremacists?” And I just don’t buy that. So I think that’s important table-setting. Because when people say, “Oh, I’m worried, slippery slope” — I’m sorry, this is not about a slippery slope. Slander is not a slippery slope. Freedom of expression was not intended to be the freedom to express hateful views that would inspire violence against Black people or Jewish people or other individuals from marginalized communities. And anyone who tells you that, that’s a tell. Anyone who says that, that’s a tell. They have a different agenda. So I’m just saying I don’t even buy that right off the bat.

With that said, we started Stop Hate for Profit because we were not seeing the kind of progress on fighting prejudice, on eliminating extremism, from Facebook. This is not to say that there aren’t well-intentioned people in the organization. There are — I know them, I’ve worked with them.

And yet the company was simply not delivering with the degree of urgency that we felt this issue merited. So the frustration had been building, and it came to a head after the death of George Floyd, who was murdered in the streets of Minneapolis by a police officer. And then we saw boogaloo enthusiasts out in the open on Facebook, literally, coordinating how they were going to disrupt the rallies, the Black Lives Matter rallies, how they were going to subvert them with violence.

Flashing red lights went off, and we brought this to the attention of Facebook and said we need a meeting right away to deal with this. And we didn’t get it. Which maybe in some ways wasn’t so much a surprise. When I said we needed a meeting, we needed to meet with Mark, we needed a clear commitment — we didn’t get it. And I wrote that letter with Jim Steyer of Common Sense Media. We’ve done some work together. There are also child advocates who are concerned about these issues.

And I said to Jim, “Okay, we need to move, we need to mobilize.” And so I reached out to Derrick Johnson of the NAACP, and Rashad Robinson of Color of Change. And Color [of Change] has done a lot of really important work as well, with Silicon Valley. Remember, they put that civil rights audit in place, which was recently published.

Facebook is failing on civil rights because it downplays the real-world consequences of hate speech

Shirin Ghaffary

That leads into my next question. What’s your takeaway of that civil rights audit, if you’ve had a chance to look at it in depth?

Jonathan Greenblatt

I’ve looked at it a little bit. I mean, it’s 100-plus pages, I can’t say I’ve read the whole thing. But I think one of the things that seems very clear to me from my read is that, as if we didn’t know this already, Mark Zuckerberg has really elevated freedom of expression above all else.

But I think that we need to realize that hateful words can have harmful results.

And while Facebook happens in the digital world, it can catalyze real-world consequences: Boogaloo enthusiasts who fired at a federal courthouse in Ohio in May killed a guard standing outside. Or in March, a member of the Aryan Brotherhood organized on a Facebook group.

I don’t know off the top of my head the exact phrasing of Facebook’s mission statement, but it’s something like “bringing the world together.” But I think bringing the Aryan Brotherhood together is not exactly a good thing. So if freedom of expression elevates engaging the Aryan Brotherhood, I think we need to step back and ask ourselves, is this really what the platform is designed to do? And if that is the case, how do we need to iterate the platform so it’s not extending the rights of the Aryan Brotherhood?

Frankly, I don’t think this is hard inasmuch as I don’t think it’s a moral dilemma. I think it’s an ethical conundrum. So I think [that’s] the reason why Stop Hate for Profit has expanded.

When we started Stop Hate for Profit three weeks ago, we had zero companies on deck. Oftentimes these sort of efforts, they’re sort of choreographed in advance. But we had zero companies. And today, we have over 1,000 organizations who have joined: Fortune 500s, and small- to medium-sized businesses and local nonprofits and global NGOs. It’s unbelievable. And I think it is a reflection of the degree of frustration that’s out there about Facebook. It’s not unique to us. There’s a large number of people who are just deeply concerned about the company, in this pattern of behavior that hasn’t changed.

Shirin Ghaffary

And what do you make of Zuckerberg’s comments to employees, that advertisers will return soon enough?

Jonathan Greenblatt

Yeah, I raised this with Mark on the call. We had a conversation. We met with him and I raised this issue. I said basically, “We know what you told the staff, I mean, we all read it in the Information.” And he said, “Oh, you know — it’s taken out of context, you need to read the whole remarks.” And I said, “I did! I read the whole remarks, that’s the point. And it’s why I find this really alarming.”

You know, I think someone said to me, “I’m sorry you had an unproductive call.” And I said, “No, actually it was very productive. It was very productive as much as it was extremely clarifying about what their priorities are.” I mean, we came to the conversation with expectations.

They [Facebook] called the meeting; we didn’t call it.

And the expectation that we had was that we were going to review the recommendations which we published on our website three weeks ago. And again, it’s worth pausing on that for a second. None of the recommendations are all that novel.

None of them are all that new. All of them align with things that ADL has been saying for years, that Color of Change has been saying for years, things that Free Press, and Common Sense, and other people — the NAACP — have been saying.

So we expected we were going to review the recommendations and talk about their implementation, strategy — what they would do and when they would do it.

But we didn’t get any of that. There was no concrete conversation. There was no review of milestones. There was no proposal of time frame. There was really nothing, so we left that call extremely disappointed.

And then, on the other hand, it’s clarifying. Again, we don’t see Facebook prioritizing this in the way that we would expect.

And I think that’s why over 1,000 organizations have joined [the ad boycott]. That’s why more are calling us every day. That’s why more nonprofits want to get on board in terms of joining the coalition, not just taking the ad pause. And so I think this is really a moment in time and an opportunity for Facebook to decide what path they want to walk down. I hope they will reflect upon our conversation and reach a different conclusion than the one that we’ve seen to date.

The ad boycott on Facebook is working, whether or not Facebook admits it

Shirin Ghaffary

Do you think so far that the boycott is working? And what do you say to those who pointed out that a majority of Facebook’s revenue does not come from the top advertisers — that it comes from a huge number of small and medium businesses — and how it would be very hard to get all those people to join a boycott?

Jonathan Greenblatt

Well, look, a couple things to think about. So number one, this was never intended to be a permanent boycott. It wasn’t intended to be a long-term walkout. In fact, as we’ve said to all the participants, this is strictly about a pause on paid advertising.

But as to your question of — has it succeeded? I mean, look, it has definitely succeeded. In a couple different ways. So number one, in Facebook’s 15-plus years, it has never happened before that advertisers have engaged and flexed their muscles in this way. That has never happened. Number two, never before has there been this kind of broad-based public conversation about Facebook practices and fighting hate on the platform.

So we’ve been able to kind of kindle this discussion that’s happening on social media. It’s in every newspaper, it’s on every news show. And the most amazing thing was to log in to Twitter in the morning and type in the hashtag “StopHateforProfit” — I’ve done it a couple times in the past couple weeks — and see all the tweets in foreign languages. I mean, this thing has had global reverberations.

And you know last week, as you probably saw, Reddit pulled down thousands of toxic subreddits. Something they probably should have done long before they did it. YouTube closed down a number of white supremacist channels — Richard Spencer and a few others. Even Twitch, which is a sub of Amazon, shut down the toxic channels. So I think all of these things are happening suddenly and swiftly because of Stop Hate for Profit. So in terms of Facebook realizing it has this vulnerability, in terms of advertising purchasing, they have a kind of power, in terms of creating this public conversation in terms of stimulating other companies to take action. I mean, we’re already succeeding.

I say all of this because, as you were kind of alluding to, Facebook has 8 million customers. It’s a $70 billion behemoth. We never thought that calling for a one-month ad block would put a dent in their P&L. The goal was to make a dent in their practices, and that being our primary objective.

Facebook’s harassment problem is worse than on other platforms

Rebecca Heilweil

Today, how bad is Facebook’s problem with anti-Semitism or other forms of hate that the ADL tracks? And how good is Facebook at taking it down?

Jonathan Greenblatt

The short answer is yes, it’s bad. So what do I mean by that? Well, like today, if you were interested, you could just log in to a Facebook group [like] “Exposing the Rothschilds,” a Facebook group with 133,000 members dedicated to anti-Semitic conspiracies about Jewish malevolence, the likes of which prompted the shooter to go to the Tree of Life synagogue, or the shooter to go to the Poway synagogue.

Rebecca Heilweil

Can you walk through what is the connection between forms of hate that we see online and the kind of violent attacks that actually happen in real life?

Jonathan Greenblatt

We see certainly a corollary relationship between increased activity on social media and increased activity offline.

The recruiting is up, and the propaganda events are up. We do annual reports about online hate and harassment. Again, this is what we do at ADL, we fight hate. So that means we have to track it, we have to analyze it and understand it. And then that allows us to drive policy and other forms of intervention. And so as we track hate offline, we track hate online. You can go to our latest, the 2020 report [on online hate and harassment]. I think it’s like 44 percent of online users report experiencing something in harassment. My recollection is like 28 percent reported a severe, sustained pattern of harassment. That number itself is pretty terrifying, that one out of four people are severely harassed online.

And far and away the place where it happens more than any other platform is Facebook. So, to your question — is anti-Semitism a problem? Is hate a problem? Yes, these are problems. Yes. Our research indicates that these are issues across these different social media services, but they’re particularly pronounced on Facebook. Now Mark, in our meeting and in other venues, decided the fact that Facebook’s AI removes 89 percent of hate content. While that stat is directionally encouraging, it’s not empirically very helpful.

Facebook has to do better than removing 89 percent of harmful content on its platform

Jonathan Greenblatt

We have to ask ourselves, “How is Facebook defining hate content?” It doesn’t seem to me that Facebook groups dedicated to Holocaust denialism are actually adding much to the public conversation. It doesn’t seem to me that QAnon conspiracy groups who spread the fiction that there are pedophilia rings in the basements of pizza parlors. Right, this is a thing. Or that cannibalism is practiced in the Democratic Party. This is a real thing, too. I don’t believe that those QAnon [posts] are adding much to the “community” that Facebook aspires to create. Right? So I think we have to ask ourselves, number one: How is Facebook defining hate content? Because I’m not sure we’re on the same page.

Secondly, I don’t understand what that 89 percent is of, right? So I need to know, what’s the numerator and the denominator? You know, not just what’s the rough percent. And maybe most significantly, I think it’s problematic for an organization of this sophistication, for a company of this capability, that they’re satisfied with and bragging about 89 percent. So Ford Motor Company is one of the members of Stop Hate for Profit. They don’t report, “Eighty-nine percent of our seatbelts work, so we’re good.” Right?

Or, Kind Snacks is another company sitting in Stop Hate for Profit. They don’t say, “Oh, well, 89 percent of our bars don’t contain glass.” Or Levi’s, which is another one of our participants. They don’t get to say, “Well, 89 percent of our jeans aren’t made in sweatshops, so we’re good.”

Again, when we’re talking about companies, the size and sophistication in any other industry, there is no “good enough.”

Right? It’s sort of binary. I think for Facebook, which is literally the most sophisticated advertising platform in the history of capitalism, 89 percent is not nearly good enough. They can microtarget users, you know, to a degree heretofore unimagined: by age, by gender, by geography, by industry, by favorite sports team — I could go on. The idea that they can’t knock off the neo-Nazis? I’m sorry, if this were really a corporate priority, if this were really an urgent issue, there’s a lot more that could be done. And then ultimately what one would do, what one would say, is for example, let’s stick with Facebook groups, alright? It’s one of my recommendations: They should remove all Facebook groups promoting hate.

I used to be an executive at Starbucks. If you had a drink at Starbucks that was making a customer sick … you know what we would do at Starbucks? Or what the executive team would do? It’s a question, I’m not being rhetorical.

Shirin Ghaffary

You would pull it all off the shelf, right?

Jonathan Greenblatt

You’d pull it off the shelf and you’d fix it, you’d figure it out. So Facebook groups promoting the Aryan Brotherhood, promoting boogaloo, promoting other violent and hateful killing conspiracies — you pull it down, and you’ve fixed it once and for all. Would it be disruptive to all the other people using groups? Yes, but that’s how it works in business.

Rebecca Heilweil

Do think it’s fair to say that the ADL’s relationship with Facebook has just broken down over the years? And can you speak to that?

Jonathan Greenblatt

I mean, look, we are still working with them on a regular basis. Yeah, I think we’re very deeply frustrated. … I think the company really needs to ratchet up its game dramatically. And I would start by looking at the recommendations in Stop Hate for Profit. They are simple. They are straightforward.

Again, for a company of this capability, they would not be difficult to execute. It’s a one and done.

Guess what happens when it’s one and done, by the way? Their product is improved. Their platform is safer and more secure for all of its users. You have less racial hatred. You have less anti-Semitism, you have less xenophobia, you have less anti-Muslim bias. I think the outcome here would be constructive and a good thing for the company.

Facebook should stop making exceptions to its rules for politicians such as President Trump

Shirin Ghaffary

Some are asking if Zuckerberg and Facebook are too sympathetic or too hesitant to moderate Trump and if there’s any political motivation there. At some point, Color of Change put out a statement saying it thinks Facebook has “back channels” with Trump and far-right extremists. So what do you make of all that? Do you think there’s truth to this?

Jonathan Greenblatt

Political exemption is one of the things that we think needs to be dealt with. There are hard things — this did not seem like a hard decision. For a company that had $8 billion in profits last year because [of] the advertising dollars that it earned right from companies. I just gotta say, eliminate the political exemption. I think that would please their advertisers who don’t want their ads subsidizing hateful content or violence.

That’s why we have it in there as a recommendation [in the list of demands tied to the Facebook ad boycott]. Number 8: removing misinformation other than voting. This is something Mark talked about in the public remarks he made about two weeks ago. And he said, we’re going to crack down on voter information on Election Day. So I’m like, “Okay, well, that’s great. That’s good. But what about the other 364 days of the year?” Voter misinformation matters every day. And I don’t think there’s anything political in that because the right to vote is a constitutional guarantee of all citizens, irrespective of how they choose to affiliate.

And again, prohibiting calls of violence by any politicians. Again, there’s nothing partisan in that. Implementing that kind of scripture ultimately serves the general public. Which should be applied equally to all politicians, or all elected officials.

Shirin Ghaffary

Do you think that Trump is held to a different standard? Do you think, even compared to other public figures, that he’s held to different standards by Facebook?

Jonathan Greenblatt

Yes, of course he’s held to a different standard. And again, the looters and shooters comment — I can’t imagine any circumstance that should have been permitted, including when it was said by President Trump.

This is why we call for the creation of the civil rights role in the C-suite. Because, of course, Mark Zuckerberg isn’t an expert on civil rights. He’s the CEO, but you should have people around the table who can advise on it.

As you probably saw when they released the audit yesterday, they announced they’re going to create a VP-level position for civil rights. But considering Facebook’s scope and their size and the spread of their services across every segment of society, I think you can’t afford to have civil rights subordinated three levels down. You need someone with this kind of authority at the table, across the table from Mark. Someone who brings the level of experience you need to navigate these complicated issues.

Who should decide what speech is acceptable and unacceptable in 2020?

Shirin Ghaffary

There is a shift happening in terms of what is considered acceptable speech online and what is not. Do you see that as well? And where do you see this headed? Do you think that Facebook should have a role in saying what is acceptable content or not? Do you think that should come from regulators or third parties?

Jonathan Greenblatt

Look, ultimately, in this political environment, you’re not going to see any legislation from Congress, at least for the near future. Any action by the kind of regulatory bodies, the executive branch, like the FTC, or otherwise may play a role — or the DOJ.

That being said, I think it’s going to take, it’s going to have to be a cross-sector effort. We’ve got consumer advocates, civil rights activists, corporate advertisers — and taken together, I hope we can encourage Mark. I mean, Mark can choose to ignore government regulators. He can ignore consumer advocacy. But I can’t imagine that Mark and that Facebook will continue to ignore the corporate advertisers.

Shirin Ghaffary

So it sounds like you think the public should take a role?

Jonathan Greenblatt

I think Stop Hate for Profit is a demonstration of public frustration. And the response reflects public pressure. And I think on top of that, I think this campaign looks poised to grow. Every day we’re [hearing] from people around the world who want to be involved. We’re hearing from other sectors who want to step up. I think this campaign will likely expand and intensify if we don’t see any progress by the end of the month. That would be my guess.


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