Ever since the 2016 election, Facebook and its CEO, Mark Zuckerberg, have come under fire for numerous reasons, ranging from privacy violations and their refusal to ban political ads to their inability to manage fake news on the platform. Each of these issues carries very important consequences and has rightly garnered public attention, both in everyday conversations and the political realm.
Indeed, Zuckerberg has testified in Congress multiple times since 2016 and faced questions on these topics. The most recent hearing was on Oct. 23, but it was questioning on a separate topic that led to one of the most viral moments of the day. Ohio Congresswoman Joyce Beatty grilled Zuckerberg on his knowledge of Facebook’s civil rights policies. Zuckerberg could not produce a single satisfactory answer.
Not only was the scene embarrassing for Zuckerberg, who clearly hadn’t prepared for this line of questioning, but also it should serve as a wake-up call. Facebook has pressing racial discrimination issues, which should be seen and treated by politicians, the general public, and the company itself as seriously as all of its other issues.
In March, the U.S. Department of Housing and Urban Development (HUD) sued Facebook for allowing companies to target ads towards certain racial groups. The fact that a Ben Carson-led HUD, which has shown reluctance to tackle housing discrimination, filed this lawsuit highlights the flagrance of this problem. HUD argued that Facebook’s policies essentially allow landlords to determine who is able to view their housing ad based on race, ethnicity, or religion, among other characteristics protected by the 1968 Fair Housing Act.
If Facebook’s policy seems reminiscent of 20th-century race-based policies such as redlining, which led to the passage of the Fair Housing Act, one point in the lawsuit makes the resonance even more explicit. Facebook gave advertisers a map tool that allowed them to literally draw a red line around an area they wanted to exclude from seeing the ad.
For anyone who has learned about the history of housing discrimination in this country, this should have sent alarm bells ringing. Yet no one at Facebook involved with designing this policy deemed this a problem. Either they were simply ignorant of the problem, or they did it on purpose. Neither option is acceptable.
Representative Beatty suggested that a lack of diversity at Facebook could be a cause. According to its diversity report, only 9 percent of Facebook employees are black or Hispanic. Addressing this problem now may seem like a necessity to ensure these policies don’t keep cropping up. However, lack of diversity should not be seen as a valid excuse.
Every company, especially those who have as much impact as Facebook, must assume responsibility for the impact of their policies. Zuckerberg’s apathy towards this issue, demonstrated by his inability to answer Beatty’s questions, shows he has not accepted that responsibility.
One could argue that Mark Zuckerberg is the CEO of Facebook and shouldn’t be responsible for having knowledge on the intricacies of every aspect of his company. Fair, but he also couldn’t name who at the company was in charge of addressing the civil rights issue and couldn’t name the civil rights firm Facebook had hired to help them. There’s no excuse for that.
Additionally, his attitude sets the tone for his company. His deprioritization of these issues sends a message to those in charge of these policies that they need not consider the harmful and discriminatory consequences of whatever it is they are designing.
Facebook’s policies have not only harmed minorities and vulnerable people in America, but also people across the world. In March of last year, UN investigators said t he spread of hate speech on Facebook played a “determining role” in the violence against Rohingya Muslims in Myanmar, which the U.S. government has called an instance of ethnic cleansing.
Like many people, I use Facebook as part of my daily routine — I often find myself scrolling through my feed when I wake up, between classes, and before I go to bed. While the revelations about Facebook’s discriminatory practices leave me feeling unsettled every time I open the app, I recognize the importance it plays in my life and the lives of other students. It is a means to communicate with friends both here and from home, to learn about events on campus, and to fulfill various other uses.
The fact that Facebook is a necessary feature in so many of our lives, however, means that we have a responsibility as users to challenge Facebook on these policies. While we often place the emphasis on Facebook’s role in political advertisements and the like, we also need to focus on the effects on vulnerable people and people of color.
Facebook should not get away with its abysmal track record on discrimination and indifference towards fixing its failures. As Representative Beatty said to Zuckerberg, “it’s almost like you think this is a joke.” It’s time for Facebook to realize it’s not.
Shannon Chaffers is a sophomore from Wellesley, Mass. She can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.