Last year, researchers at Facebook showed executives an example of the kind of hate speech circulating on the social network: an actual post featuring an image of four female Democratic lawmakers known collectively as “The Squad.”
The poster, whose name was scrubbed out for privacy, referred to the women, two of whom are Muslim, as “swami rag heads.” A comment from another person used even more vulgar language, referring to the four women of color as “black c—s,” according to internal company documents exclusively obtained by The Washington Post.
The post represented the“worst of the worst” language on Facebook — the majority of it directed at minority groups, according to a two-year effort by a large team working across the company, the document said. The researchers urged executives to adopt an aggressive overhaul of its software system that would primarily remove only those hateful posts before any Facebook users could see them.
But Facebook’s leaders balked at the plan. According to two people familiar with the internal debate, top executives including Vice President for Global Public Policy Joel Kaplan feared the new system would tilt the scales by protecting some vulnerable groups over others. A policy executive prepared a document for Kaplan that raised the potential for backlash from “conservative partners,” according to the document. The people spoke to The Post on the condition of anonymity to discuss sensitive internal matters.
The previously unreported debate is an example of how Facebook’s decisions in the name of being neutral and race-blind in fact come at the expense of minorities and particularly people of color. Far from protecting Black and other minority users, Facebook executives wound up instituting half-measures after the “worst of the worst” project that left minorities more likely to encounter derogatory and racist language on the site, the people said.
“Even though [Facebook executives] don’t have any animus toward people of color, their actions are on the side of racists,” said Tatenda Musapatike, a former Facebook manager working on political ads and CEO of the Voter Formation Project, a nonpartisan, nonprofit organization that uses digital communication to increase participation in local state and national elections. “You are saying that the health and safety of women of color on the platform is not as important as pleasing your rich White man friends.”
The Black audience on Facebook is in decline, according to data from a study Facebook conducted earlier this year that was revealed in documents obtained by whistleblower Frances Haugen. According to the February report, the number of Black monthly users fell 2.7 percent in one month to 17.3 million adults. It also shows that usage by Black people peaked in September 2020. Haugen’s legal counsel provided redacted versions of the documents to Congress, which were viewed by a consortium of news organizations including The Post.