This week on the Vergecast interview series, Verge editor-in-chief Nilay Patel talks to Rashad Robinson, president of Color of Change, about the Facebook ad boycott and Facebook’s civil rights audit that was released to the public.
Color of Change, an online racial justice organization, is one of the groups leading the ad boycott against Facebook and other social media companies in response to hate speech on those platforms.
In the interview, Robinson talks about how the boycott campaign came together; his history pushing Facebook on issues of hate speech and civil rights; and meeting with Mark Zuckerberg, Sheryl Sandberg, and fellow leaders of the boycott to discuss the Facebook civil rights audit and how the company can improve the platform.
Below is a lightly edited excerpt of the conversation.
Nilay Patel: The audit gives a lot of credit to Facebook for supporting it, for having a dedicated team for Sheryl Sandberg being a part of the process. The audit also calls some moderation decisions heartbreaking and vexing. So it seems like it’s one step forward, two steps back or two steps forward, one step back. What was your reaction to the audit?
Rashad Robinson: I mean, there was nothing in the audit that surprised me. I’ve been part of the process, I’ve been interviewed in the audit multiple times, I’ve talked to the auditors, I’ve been back and forth with Sheryl. I’ve never called their decisions heartbreaking because it wasn’t my heart that was sort of focused here. But I can totally see that if you’re working on a two-year audit and you put a bunch of rules in place…
So the first two phases of the audit put rules in place. And we all worked on those rules. And then Donald Trump puts a “looters and shooters” post up. And then he puts up posts that clearly suppress the vote. They violated the four corners of the policies that Facebook had announced that we — while they weren’t perfect — were saying that they were a great step forward. I said they were a step forward! I gave them credit for it. And the auditors felt like they were moving in the right direction. And then the “looters and shooters” post comes up.
And this is actually a point back to this free speech thing. So the “looters and shooters” post comes up, if anybody else posts that, that comes down. So Mark calls Donald Trump to have a conversation with him about the post and says like, “Hey, you’re putting me in a bad place here” and doesn’t take down the post. I know how this works. I’ve been Black my whole life. I know how this works because this is what happens when the police chief’s son breaks the law and the police chief tells his son, “You know, you’re putting me in a bad situation here.” It’s privilege, right? It’s because Facebook, at the incentive level, has an incentive problem. The same way the police chief has an incentive problem when his son is breaking the law and he doesn’t do anything to him the same way he would do something to the Black kid down the street.
What ends up happening here is that these decisions go through their political and policy department, the department that actually is responsible for maintaining relationships with the administration. The department that actually is fighting to make sure that they are not regulated. And so these things are all through a political prism. And that’s why this is not some free speech thing about, “Oh, we’re all just free.” This is actually about people picking winners and losers, people picking who gets a voice and who gets an unfettered voice and who doesn’t.
And so what ends up happening, they don’t pull it down. I’m in a meeting with Mark. I’m trying to explain to Mark for the second time. June 1st, I explain the first time. Now I’m back again.
This is this week?
This week. This is a problem. And they’re once again trying to explain to me that they have this carve-out. Nick Clegg, their head of global policy, who is not from the United States — this is the problem when the global platforms talk about human rights but don’t think about civil rights. It means that they don’t understand the unique nuances of individual countries: the inside of a country, maybe the historical impacts of attacks on certain religious minorities, or the unique attacks on racial minorities, or the fights maybe that women have had around gender equality that relate to the civil nature of a country that makes nuances around voice and conversation not benign. That there’s not just a kind of baseline for everything.
And so he was trying to explain to me — Mark — was basically like, “This is about a head of state saying that there might be violence, and that if looters were happening, that we might use state authority to squash it.”
And, you know, this is what happens when a single person gets to control a platform that has 2.6 billion users, more followers than Christianity. A single person gets to control a platform that he’s chairman and CEO and has 60 percent of the shares.
What ends up happening is that there are all these blind spots. And so he can say this to me. And I’m like, “Well, if you really understood civil rights and the histories of civil rights in this country, you would know that that’s dog whistling. You would know that Donald Trump, who has done this throughout his time, is dog whistling to white nationalists.” I mean, just in that month span, white nationalists are showing up to capitals with guns, demanding Black and brown people go back to work, basically. And so he’s channeling this to them. And that was incredibly dangerous. And they left that post up.
Donald Trump puts up a post about vote-by-mail being illegal and saying that California and Michigan were sending ballots to every single person that lived in the state. So it’s voter suppression on a number of cases. What if you actually are expecting now an absentee ballot and you don’t get one because the president has said that you’re getting one? California and Michigan were not sending absentee ballots. They were sending applications for absentee ballots to registered voters. So it’s a very different thing. He called it illegal.
And they left those up because they are afraid of Donald Trump. Because the people who make that decision are also the people who, day to day, have to relate to the White House, have to relate to the government. So that actually is the exact opposite of free speech — that people with a lot of power, that people in government positions, get a different kind of voice, a different thing that they can say. And the rest of us actually get penalized in ways that are more challenging.
So you’re in the meeting with Mark and Nick Clegg and Sheryl this week. What does that meeting look like?
Part of what I really wanted to focus on in the meeting is getting Mark to talk through these challenges. Having him go through what he was working on and what the issues were. And they wanted us to go through each of the things.
You know, I had heard from a former Facebook staffer years ago that they had these, like, trainings on running meetings at Facebook where they know how to run down the clock. I don’t know if that’s totally true, but they know how to run down the clock. At every meeting, I’m coming in trying to think about how do I make sure they don’t run down the clock on me because they will talk a lot, then they’ll try to get me to explain things that were in the pre-readings, that have been in the media, that we’ve already talked about.
And here’s the challenge sometimes in these meetings. I feel like I’m starting back before the last meeting. I’m having to re-explain things that I thought we already covered and that I thought we already engaged. And that’s sort of the case once again.
I do think that they worked really hard in the meeting to try to make the case that they’re doing much better than all the other platforms. They said that they’re catching things at a level that the other platforms aren’t and that their systems are working much better. I remember at one point in the meeting, someone said, “Oh, so you guys have no problems? Is that what you’re saying?” And they’re like, “No, no, that’s not what we’re saying.” And I’m like, “Well then, what are you saying?”
And so they are very good at trying to sell a story that they are not having any problems. As we’ve talked to a lot of corporations, we consistently hear that the corporations have raised a lot of these concerns to them over the years, have pushed them on these concerns over the years. We were able to show many of these companies their ads showing up right next to like the boogaloo boys and other stuff.
And, you know, I will say that, when we had this back and forth, all I could think of was like, “wow.” So social justice organizations are standing hand in hand with major corporations, many of whom I’ve run campaigns against, who are not social justice warriors. And we’re all saying the same thing. Investors are saying similar things out there. And the corporation is saying, “We don’t have to do anything.” And it was just another reminder to me about this sort of inadequate power of the rules that we currently have and why we have rules of the road for corporations. Facebook has over 70 percent of the messenger market. They have cornered the market in such a powerful way that they do believe that they don’t have to make these decisions.
At the same time, they asked for the meeting. They wanted to sit down. They had started to agree to certain things. They have followed up with me since the meeting and tried to be in more conversation. And they are calling advertisers nonstop to try to convince them to come back and making hard presses on them about everything that they’re doing. Last night, they sent out a list of what they’re doing on each one of our demands. If we weren’t having an impact, they wouldn’t be doing any of that.
That list of demands is interesting. My colleague Casey Newton, who writes our newsletter, his characterization of the demands is they’re actually quite narrow. It’s the executive for civil rights should have a C-Suite title rather than vice president; that if advertisers see their ads next to hate speech, they should get a refund; there should be more audits; and the big one is, obviously, you got to fact-check political ads. Is that intentionally narrow? Like, here’s some stuff you can accomplish as opposed to the big stuff of “stop election interference”?
Well, I just don’t know if Facebook can stop election interference. And I don’t trust them to tell me that they will. I mean, I trust that they’ll tell me that. I guess I just don’t trust the answer.
Some of these things are why we have a government in this country and why we have to actually hold different people accountable for different things. And so yeah, we’ve fought them on election interference, and we’ve gotten them to commit that they’ve fixed it. I mean, they’ve said that they’ll fix it. But I do I believe that? No. But I also don’t know if putting that in a demand gets me any closer to getting that. I think without independent oversight that I can’t trust Facebook to lead, that doesn’t actually happen.
And so one of the things that we actually wanted to do with these demands was also create an entree to see if Facebook was going to be in this, if Facebook wanted to be part of the story of making change or Facebook wanted to sit on the outside.
I’ve been very honest with Facebook and everyone in public that I am at the table because I have to be at the table. Because we don’t have the political and regulatory levers to actually do everything that we need. And you know, sometimes people say like, “Don’t say that, Rashad, because then they may not want to talk to you.” And I’m like, “Well, I represent a real constituency in the world.” And also, I don’t want to be a person that is thinking that we can actually shift the power structures by the corporations simply telling us that they’re going to do better.
And yes, there are things corporations can do better, but I know civil rights. And civil rights is actually about ensuring that we have rules and protections. This is not about the good-natured, heartfelt sort of feelings of corporations to treat Black people okay. If that was the case, then we would be in a worse place than we currently are.
And so I am using the pressure of advertising, the pressure of power, to get as much done as possible. I feel very focused and determined around the election and determined around what does it mean to ensure that a lot of the interference that we saw that was foreign in ‘16 by a lot intel looks like it’s coming home. And a lot of the farms that are developing that are putting out content that is meant to suppress or create disinformation or misinformation, is much more domestic than it is foreign. And that needs to happen.