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Hate is in the eye of the beholder: Facebook extends olive branch to boycott leaders, but middle ground is elusive in polarized US

Seeking to appease hundreds of companies that have halted advertising, Facebook is pledging to do a better job policing ‘hateful’ content – a tall order in a nation where warring political parties can’t even agree on basic facts.

Facebook CEO Mark Zuckerberg and chief operating officer Sheryl Sandberg met on Tuesday with organizers of the boycott campaign, led by the NAACP and the Anti-Defamation League. They also announced plans to meet with other activist groups and consult with their own civil rights auditor.

The #StopHateForProfit boycott movement has seen more than 900 businesses suspending their advertising on the platform until the company curbs content that they find “toxic and hateful,” although many big advertisers didn’t join it. Stock investors were not impressed with Facebook’s shares rising this week, and even CNN and the New York Times continued to run ads on the platform despite the criticism.

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Facebook’s talks with boycott organizers come amid “the largest social movement in US history and our nation’s best and latest chance to act against the racism that has pervaded our country,” Sandberg said. Changes will be made not because of advertiser pressure, but “because it’s the right thing to do,” she added.

Following the talks, one of the activists described them as “a disappointment” and said Facebook was “not yet ready to address the vitriolic hate on their platform.”

Met with Mark Zuckerberg and @Facebook leadership today. It was a disappointment. They have had our demands for years and yet it is abundantly clear that they are not yet ready to address the vitriolic hate on their platform.

— Rashad Robinson (@rashadrobinson) July 7, 2020

Deciding who will define which speech is hateful and how they will do it – to the satisfaction of a broad spectrum of observers – is the first almost impossible task. Americans are so politically divided that nearly eight in 10 respondents in a Pew Research Center survey in 2018 said Republican and Democrat voters can’t even agree on matters of fact, let alone policies. Convincing advertisers, lawmakers and users that Facebook even aims to provide an unbiased public forum for free speech might be even tougher.

As part of an effort to “minimize the presence of hate on our platform,” Facebook ordered its own civil rights audit two years ago, and said it will implement many of the recommendations in its final audit report, which is due out on July 8, as well as suggestions from other groups.

The world’s biggest social media platform has long been accused of an anti-conservative bias. Facebook’s fact-check unit was exposed last month as being staffed mostly by Democrat donors, including former CNN employees. Its 20-person Oversight Board, billed as an independent arbitrator of content moderator decisions, has been panned by conservatives and leftists alike for its alleged lack of intellectual purity.

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The idea of Facebook making concessions to placate liberal groups will be troubling to many conservatives, who see the company already placing its thumb on the scales of public opinion as this year’s presidential election approaches. Undercover videos posted last month by investigative journalism group Project Veritas showed content moderators allegedly bragging about deleting posts supportive of President Donald Trump.

Facebook and other social media companies also face potential punishment from Congress if they are seen as swinging too far to the left. Lawmakers such as Senator Josh Hawley (R-Missouri) have called for reconsidering an exemption that Congress granted to social media firms protecting them from being held legally liable for the content on their platforms. The argument goes that the platforms are forums for public discussion, not curated content, so the companies aren’t held legally responsible.

“What we’re talking about is when these platforms exert editorial control to shut down political speech that they don’t like,” Hawley said in an interview last year with the Verge.

Trump signed an executive order in May that sought to weaken the legal immunity of social media platforms.

“They’ve had unchecked power to censor, restrict, edit, shape, hide, alter, virtually any form of communication between private citizens and large public audiences,” he said.

Given Facebook’s size and political influence – more than 2.6 billion users – where the pendulum lands in the company’s latest effort to find tenable ground could have a significant impact when US voters go to the polls in November.

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