Facebook CEO Mark Zuckerberg. Picture: REUTERS/ERIN SCOTT
Facebook CEO Mark Zuckerberg. Picture: REUTERS/ERIN SCOTT

San Francisco/Washington — Facebook CEO Mark Zuckerberg was urged by civil rights activists during a dinner at his Palo Alto, California, home to push the company to more aggressively root out election misinformation and voter suppression on its social-media platforms.

Civil rights leaders, including Al Sharpton, also asked Zuckerberg to prioritise civil rights more vigorously inside the company. The dinner on Monday, which lasted about two hours, included discussion on topics such as voter suppression and misinformation campaigns heading into the 2020 US elections, plus tactics being used to keep people off the voter rolls ahead of the census, according to Sharpton and Rashad Robinson, president of the advocacy group Color of Change, who were among the attendees.

Facebook has been under scrutiny on issues including election manipulation, privacy lapses and potential antitrust actions. Civil rights activists took particular issue with the company when researchers found Russian operatives used Facebook to target African American voters with misinformation and voter suppression efforts during the 2016 presidential campaign.

Zuckerberg, who was joined by Facebook executives including COO Sheryl Sandberg and head of global policy Nick Clegg, was encouraged to embed civil rights experts in the company who would be alert to nuances in the political discourse — such as calls for voters to stand their ground — that Sharpton said are meant to suppress votes even though it might not appear that way.

“We said free speech has to be done within the framework of public safety and abiding by the law,” Sharpton told Bloomberg. “Breaking the law in our opinion is any engagement in knowingly being involved in voter suppression.”

Robinson said Facebook needs to build civil rights into its company DNA.

Facebook needs a “C-suite-level team that is focused on civil rights,” Robinson said. This group would look at things such as Facebook’s artificial intelligence efforts, algorithms, ads and content to provide the company with “a lens by which civil rights is viewed”.

“We’re grateful that these prominent leaders of the civil rights community took the time to attend a private dinner hosted by Mark and Sheryl,” a Facebook spokesperson said. “They discussed a range of important issues and we look forward to continuing these conversations.”

The conversation was respectful and engaging, according to attendees, and Zuckerberg asked a lot of questions. He reiterated points he has made publicly about the role he wants Facebook to play as a centre of debate and concerns about the company acting as an arbiter in US political discourse, Sharpton said.

Facebook executives did not make any promises about how or what they might do to address the activists’ concerns, attendees said.

“The implication was that he is thinking through how to get to the right place,” Sharpton said. “I think the fact that he had the meeting and had it in his home, not that he had others do it or even meet at his office, was a signal that he’s directly looking into this.”

“I felt like we had a substantive and respectful conversation that was robust,” Robinson added. “Whether or not we were heard will depend on their actions.”

Bloomberg