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OPINION

Zuckerberg doesn’t know his civil rights history

By SHERRILYN IFILL | Special to The Washington Post | Published: October 18, 2019

In a speech Thursday at Georgetown University, Facebook’s Mark Zuckerberg invoked Frederick Douglass, Martin Luther King Jr., Black Lives Matter and the struggles of the civil rights movement to defend his company’s policy exempting politicians from the platform’s policies against false speech and misinformation.

This is a profound misreading of the civil rights movement in America. And a dangerous misunderstanding of the political and digital landscape we now inhabit.

Special counsel Robert Mueller’s indictment of Russian operatives last year confirmed other official reports that Facebook had been a particularly useful tool in a misinformation campaign that targeted African Americans more than any other voters. In recent months, civil rights groups such as mine worked to convince Facebook that the problem extended beyond foreign interference to the use of Facebook by domestic political forces engaged in their own dangerous campaigns of racial division and voter suppression. We argued that Facebook failed to understand how its platform has been manipulated and weaponized in ways that endanger racial and ethnic groups. We also challenged — including in court — practices by the tech giant that permitted the explicit use of racism by ad purchasers — and demanded that the firm undertake a civil rights audit.

Although Facebook has undertaken commendable measures to address the ways that foreign and fake accounts engage in election interference, the company has refused to fully recognize the threat of voter suppression and intimidation here at home, especially from users that the company refers to as “authentic voices” — politicians and candidates for public office.

Facebook insists it does not allow voter suppression on its platform. But that statement is more aspiration than fact. After nearly two years of conversations between the company and our groups, I am convinced that Facebook simply is ill-equipped to define what constitutes voter suppression — especially at the local level. To help Facebook understand, we have provided the company with examples of voter suppression practices we have seen at the local level that would survive their policies. Here’s one. Imagine a candidate is running for sheriff in a border-state county. On the Sunday night before Election Day, the candidate posts the following on Facebook: “If you’re an illegal, you will not vote in our election Tuesday. Only citizens, legally registered to vote in our county are able to vote. We’ll have an armed citizen patrol watch on duty. Our citizens patrol will be out in force outside the polls, exercising our Second Amendment rights and protecting the integrity of our elections. If you’re illegal, you and anyone who tries to help you is going to jail.”

If this were a flier posted in a Latino community, we would recognize it as an attempt at voter suppression. But posted on Facebook by a candidate, such a post would be part of the “newsworthy” content that Zuckerberg believes will spark debate.

In his speech, Zuckerberg invoked King’s Letter from Birmingham Jail as an example of the tension that comes with free expression — a tension Zuckerberg encouraged us to embrace. What Zuckerberg failed to note is that King was the subject of violent assaults (and finally assassination) that were the result of the same kind of hate-fueled disinformation campaigns that infect the Internet and are now aimed at a different generation of civil rights leaders. At the height of the Cold War, segregationists and racists — often led by politicians — falsely and repeatedly claimed that King was a communist. Many of those who harassed King and civil rights protesters believed themselves to be patriots acting in defense of America, precisely because of the concerted disinformation campaigns advanced by elected officials, FBI Director J. Edgar Hoover and others. As a result, a climate of violence and danger followed civil rights activists and King every day.

The civil rights movement was not fought to vindicate free speech rights under the First Amendment. It was a fight to fulfill the promise of full citizenship and human dignity guaranteed to black people by the 14th Amendment. To use the struggle of those extraordinary heroes as a rationale for protecting Facebook users who seek to incite the same kind of division and violence those heroes faced turns that history on its head.

Facebook must do more than stand in the reflected glory of those who sacrificed much to create our modern democracy. It must stand in the harsh light of truth and confront the enormous responsibility of stewarding a platform that influences hundreds of millions of people and the potential uses of that platform that threaten our democracy.

Sherrilyn Ifill is president and director-counsel of the NAACP Legal Defense Fund.

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