Facebook founder and CEO Mark Zuckerberg came under fire on Wednesday from black lawmakers for his company’s lack of diversity and its connection to the spread of misleading ads targeting black activist groups.
Zuckerberg was answering questions about his company’s handling of user information and data privacy at a hearing before the House Energy and Commerce Committee. As Vox’s Emily Stewart and Jen Kirby note, he has been criticized in the wake of the Cambridge Analytica scandal that left the information of tens of millions of Facebook users exposed and raised questions about how Russia and other groups have used the platform to influence US politics.
In one egregious example, Russian hackers used some 3,000 ads on the platform to inflame racial tensions, with some of the ads suggesting that racial justice groups like Black Lives Matter were a political threat. Rep. Yvette Clarke (D-NY) asked Zuckerberg if the company’s lack of diversity affected Facebook’s ability or willingness to look into this.
“I’m concerned that there are not eyes that are culturally competent looking at these things,” she said.
In addition to the ads, Russian operatives working for the St. Petersburg-based Internet Research Agency used several social media accounts on Facebook, Twitter and Instagram — including ones called “Woke Blacks” and “Blacktivists” — to urge black Americans to vote for third-party candidates or sit out the election entirely, according to information released by special counsel Robert Mueller’s Russia investigation. Other accounts targeting Trump supporters allegedly stoked fears of voter fraud in the lead-up to the presidential election by pushing already debunked claims about the practice.
In his response, Zuckerberg acknowledged that racial diversity was something the company needed to improve on, but argued that the company was slow to notice the entire Russian propaganda effort. He also talked about future steps to stop this kind of problem from happening again.
“We’re going to address this by verifying the identity of every single advertiser who’s running political or issue-oriented ads to make it so that foreign actors or people trying to spoof their identity or say that they’re someone that they’re not cannot run political ads or run large pages,” he said.
This isn’t the first time Facebook has been criticized for its lack of diversity
Facebook’s poor diversity numbers have been a sore spot for the company for years, and while they’ve improved in some areas, that improvement has been relatively small. According to Facebook’s 2017 diversity report, last year the company increased its share of black and Hispanic employees by 1 percent each, to 3 and 5 percent respectively. Black and Hispanic employees each account for 3 percent of Facebook’s senior leadership.
The Wednesday exchange also comes after recent news that Facebook allowed a fake page about Black Lives Matter — which raised $100,000 and was the largest Black Lives Matter page on the platform — to remain active, even after a founder of the racial justice organization notified Facebook that the page was fake. On Monday, a CNN investigation revealed that the page was a “scam with ties to a middle-aged white man in Australia.”
Clarke, who serves as a member of the newly formed Tech Accountability Caucus, wasn’t the only black legislator to ask about Facebook’s relationship with users of color. Rep. G.K. Butterfield (D-NC) also asked about Facebook’s diversity, saying that the racial makeup of the company’s leadership team “does not reflect America.”
And during Zuckerberg’s testimony before the Senate Judiciary and Senate Commerce, Science, and Transportation committees on Tuesday, Sen. Cory Booker (D-NJ) asked about Facebook’s role in the surveillance of activists affiliated with Black Lives Matter, calling on Zuckerberg to ensure “that the freedoms of civil rights activists and others are not targeted, or their work [is] not being undermined.”
Booker also asked Zuckerberg about a 2016 ProPublica investigation that found that Facebook had allowed advertisers to exclude black and Hispanic users from seeing certain ads. Last month, several civil rights groups sued Facebook, saying that the company’s ad practices facilitated housing discrimination by allowing housing advertisers to prevent members of certain racial groups from seeing their ads.
Zuckerberg responded by saying that Facebook is looking into the issues and would follow up.