Facebook picks former Obama official Roy Austin Jr. to lead its civil rights reforms
Facebook has created a new civil rights executive position, filled by a former Obama administration expert, Roy Austin Jr.
Groups like the NAACP and Anti-Defamation League, backed by concerned advertisers, pressured Facebook to create the civil rights leadership position after they felt their issues were being ignored by the company’s executives, which helped lead to a Facebook ad boycott in July.
On Monday, Facebook announced the appointment of Austin. Facebook had promised to carve out this civil rights role in its executive ranks in order to bring a new voice into the company that could better understand the concerns of People of Color and other marginalized communities.
“In addition to hiring Roy Austin as our Civil Rights VP, we are also working to bring more civil rights expertise in-house so that we can embed this expertise on core teams,” Facebook said in its statement on Monday. “We are in the process of developing civil rights training for employees in the early stages of policy and product development, in partnership with civil rights law firm, Relman Colfax.”
NAACP was not immediately available for comment on Facebook’s civil rights steps. The new role comes at an urgent moment, with the nation dealing with the fallout from an insurrection in Congress last week, an action that was partly instigated by hateful rhetoric on social media. The riots led to at least five deaths in Washington, D.C. and terrorized members of Congress, with many of the instigators having been active on social media. President Donald Trump was considered to be one of those instigators through tweets and Facebook posts.
The attack on Congress was similar to the spurts of violence seen throughout last year, organized online by militia groups and conspiracy theorists. Many of those groups were the same ones that the NAACP and ADL had warned about for months, especially following the police killing of George Floyd in Minneapolis.
In June, Civil rights groups met with Facebook to discuss how hate groups were using the service to instigate violence. They also raised the issue of Trump’s messages amid the civil unrest in May and June. During protests in Washington at the time, Trump tweeted and posted to Facebook that “when the looting starts, the shooting starts,” which signaled a plan to crackdown violently on demonstrators.
The civil rights groups said that the president was encouraging bloodletting against minority groups. Facebook and other social platforms have been wrestling with how to give the leader of the free world access to their platforms while also remaining sensitive to the demands of the civil rights groups and other concerned leaders.
That debate came to a close last week with the events in the Capitol. Facebook and Twitter took the ultimate steps to shut down Trump’s use of their services. Trump was barred from Facebook, at least through the inauguration of President-elect Joe Biden on Jan. 20, and Twitter permanently suspended Trump on Friday. Twitter said that Trump’s tweets could encourage further unrest around the inauguration.
All the platforms, including Facebook, Twitter, YouTube, Reddit, Snapchat, Pinterest, TikTok, Amazon’s Twitch and more reacted to the violence in Washington by limiting access to their platforms. The digital reckoning continued into this week with platforms continuing to take steps to stem chaos in the U.S.
Amazon took drastic measures, kicking an app called Parler off its AWS cloud service, which is used by companies that operate online. Parler has been criticized for its lack of moderation, and became a refuge for conservative and far-right accounts that had been displaced by bans from Twitter. Apple and Google both removed Parler from their app stores.
Meanwhile, brands and advertisers have started to take stock of their own culpability in funding platforms where hate speech has proliferated. For months, the ad industry has been trying to quantify the extent of hate speech and disinformation online, and how often ads go to support such content.
In September, the World Federation of Advertisers and Global Alliance for Responsible Media joined brands and social platforms to create clearer definitions of hate speech. The WFA and GARM released a slate of policy proposals to ensure more accountability in the digital ad industry. And Facebook and Twitter have promised to release outside audits to disclose how much hate speech is available on their services.
Austin joins Facebook with more than two decades of civil rights experience. He was a deputy assistant to Obama.