31 Activist Groups Demand Facebook Change at the Top

Two independent research groups contracted by the Senate Intelligence Committee reported Monday that fake accounts owned by Russian hackers delivered some 300 million views between 2015 and 2017 designed to boost Donald Trump and his presidential campaign. The fake posts were made to Twitter Inc. (NYSE: TWTR), Facebook Inc. (NASDAQ: FB), Instagram (which is owned by Facebook) and Alphabet Inc.’s (NASDAQ: GOOGL) YouTube.

A response was not long in coming. A group of 31 activist organizations on Tuesday delivered a letter to Mark Zuckerberg demanding “significant changes” not only in Facebook’s policies but also in its leadership.

Among those demands was a call for Zuckerberg to step down as Facebook’s chairman as long as he remains the company’s CEO and that Chief Operating Officer Sheryl Sandberg also leave the board as long as she is a company officer.

The letter’s signatories included Muslim Advocates, Media Matters for America, MoveOn, Southern Poverty Law Center and UltraViolet. The groups also demanded that Facebook expand its board of directors by three and the new members “should reflect the diversity of you global community of users” and the appointment of “an independent and permanent civil rights ombudsman” to review the “civil rights implications of Facebook’s policies and practices.”

Citing a report in The New York Times, the letter charges:

In the face of clear evidence that Facebook was being used to broadcast viral propaganda and inspire deadly bigoted campaigns, the company’s leadership consistently either looked the other way, or actively worked to lobby against meaningful regulation, shifted public opinion against its allies, and personally attacked its critics.

The report from research firm New Knowledge presented to the Senate Intelligence Committee underlines the charge, not only with respect to Facebook but Twitter and YouTube as well:

Regrettably, it appears that the platforms may have misrepresented or evaded in some of their
statements to Congress; one platform claimed that no specific groups were targeted (this
is only true if speaking strictly of ads), while another dissembled about whether or not the [Russian government-backed] Internet Research Agency created content to discourage voting (it did). It is unclear whether these answers were the result of faulty or lacking analysis, or a more deliberate evasion.

It is doubtful that Zuckerberg or Sandberg will step down from Facebook’s board. Times writer Kara Swisher asked in an August interview about what responsibility he feels for any damage his creation and his company have done. Zuckerberg, after dodging the question several times, finally answered:

I mean, my emotion is feeling a deep sense of responsibility to try to fix the problem. In running a company, if you want to be innovative and advance things forward, I think you have to be willing to get some things wrong. But I don’t think it is acceptable to get the same things wrong over and over again.

But that’s exactly what Facebook seems to do — get the same things wrong repeatedly. Even if Zuckerberg can’t be removed as chairman (he controls the majority of the company’s voting stock), maybe enough pressure will get him thinking about the impact of his company’s platform and his responsibility for it. But don’t bet on it.