Facebook has come under fire by the Congressional Black Caucus (CBC) for absence of diversity in the boardroom — none of its eight board members are people of color — and for having allowed the Russian government to systematically use its platform to exploit the Black community.
In a closed-door meeting on Capitol Hill on Thursday, Black lawmakers questioned Sheryl Sandberg, Facebook’s chief operating officer, on how the company allowed Russian actors to purchase Facebook ads that targeted Black Lives Matter. Facebook listed a “Blacktivist” account among the 470 Russian-linked accounts reported to Congress.
The account was created to exacerbate racial tensions in the country during the 2016 U.S. presidential election. It was used to exploit the Black Lives Matter movement by manipulating issues of concern for activists, including police brutality and racial inequality, in order to create ire among whites, allegedly to further coax them to vote for then Republican nominee Donald Trump.
From fake Black activist social media accounts to a Facebook ad of a Black woman ready to fire a gun, Russian trolls attempted to manipulate Americans.
Earlier this month, Facebook CEO Mark Zuckerberg disclosed to Congress that some 3,000 divisive ads were a part of Russia’s $100,000 political ad buy. At least one Black Lives Matter Facebook post under the Blacktivist account that appeared in late 2015 or early 2016 was geographically targeted through the site’s ad system toward Baltimore and Ferguson, Mo., according to CNN.
“Historically, those in the struggle for civil rights have not only been forced to confront institutions of racism in our society, they have also been forced to confront attacks and espionage activity from individual actors and organizations in and outside of government,” Rep. Cedric L. Richmond (D-LA), chairman of the CBC, said in a statement.
“It is my hope that our tech community takes this matter seriously, is forthright with the Special Counsel and Congress, and does everything it can to make sure it is not manipulated like this again.
“We can’t conclusively say these actions impacted the outcome of the election. But we can say that these ads caused harm and additional resentment to young people who unselfishly fight for justice and equality for African Americans and other marginalized communities.”
House Republican Rep. Mike Conaway, who is leading the House intelligence committee probe, said Sandberg told lawmakers behind closed doors on Wednesday that Facebook is working hard to ensure Americans “understand what the propaganda is that they may or may not be reading.”
Zuckerberg has publicly outlined steps the company plans to take to deter governments from abusing the social media network, including making advertising more transparent.
According to The New York Times, several lawmakers in Thursday’s meeting commented that Sandberg frequently said, “We will do better” and “You will get answers,” and that she often agreed with their concerns.
“She was checking the boxes. She said all the right things,” Rep. Donald M. Payne Jr. (D-N.J.) said.
But Payne was not satisfied with Sandberg’s statements.
“I had an uncle who hated when you said ‘gonna:’ ‘I’m gonna do this, and I’m gonna do that.’ He used to say, ‘Don’t be a gonna.’ And that’s what I said to her, ‘Don’t be a gonna.’”
Following the meeting, Rep. Robin Kelly (D-Ill.) said, “I think that there were so many of us in the room expressing ourselves and asking questions that [Sandberg] really couldn’t take a deep dive into any one thing.”
Perhaps Sandberg’s presence was more of a PR move because CBC members have been consistently pressuring Zuckerberg on the issue.
Kelly penned him a letter in late September to “ensure that discriminatory and tactically divisive ad-targeting is aggressively prevented.”
“It is my belief that Facebook cannot be the Trojan horse through which America’s vulnerabilities are exploited,” she wrote.
Lack of Diversity in Facebook’s Board of Directors
Several Black lawmakers have been pressing Facebook for years in regard to the lack of diversity on its board of directors. On Oct. 6, Kelly and Reps. Emanuel Cleaver (D-Mo.) and Bonnie Watson Coleman (D-N.J.) wrote a letter to Zuckerberg regarding the topic.
Sandberg told the CBC on Thursday that Facebook planned to add an African American to its board, a source familiar with the closed-door meeting told Reuters, but she offered no details.
“The fact that no African Americans serve on the board of directors, there are no African Americans in their C-suite — that is unacceptable,” Rep. G.K. Butterfield (D-N.C.) told reporters after the meeting.
Facebook’s diversity report made public in August revealed that its Black and Latino workforce increased by 1 percent each to 3 percent and 5 percent, respectively.
However, the percentage of Blacks and Latinos in technical roles — coders, developers, and engineers — has been static at 1 percent and 3 percent, respectively, since 2014.
“I know as far as the issue around hiring, according to [Sandberg’s] global diversity person [Maxine Williams], they’ve done more hiring of African Americans in the last 18 months than they’ve done in 12 years,” Kelly said, “So they’ve taken steps, but there’s more steps to be taken.”
Facebook has never completed DiversityInc’s extensive annual survey, which yields an empirically driven ranking based on recruitment, talent development, senior leadership commitment and supplier diversity. The nation’s top companies that make the annual Top 50 list excel in such areas as hiring, retaining and promoting women, ethnic minorities, people with disabilities, LGBT people and veterans.
“When you look at the data, companies committed to diversity just grow and prosper more on every front,” CNBC reporter Bertha Coombs said in April of the DiversityInc 2017 Top 50 stock index.
If Facebook doesn’t take concrete steps as a company to reflect the changing U.S. demographics, they will lose out on top talent.
“So if you don’t focus on the buying power of Latinos or people of color, if you don’t look at the fact that in the next 30 years or so, the majority of this country — more than 52 percent — will be people of color, then you are really missing the big picture,” Coombs said. “And you are really not focusing on the stars and focusing on the future.”
Facebook, along with Twitter and Google, is expected to testify regarding Russia and the 2016 election on Nov. 1 at a House Intelligence Committee hearing.