Protecting Civil Rights on Facebook During Elections

Sheryl Sandberg
Chief Operating Officer, Facebook

I joined Facebook because I believe deeply in the good that happens when people connect. We can stay in touch with friends, create communities, and talk about important issues. Facebook gives people a way to use their voice — and this is especially important for people who want to build social movements or whose voices have not always been heard.

Unfortunately, these same connections can also be abused by people with bad intentions. That’s what happened in the 2016 U.S. presidential election when foreign actors used networks of fake accounts to spread misinformation and sow division. According to two independent reports commissioned by the Senate Select Committee on Intelligence, the Russian Internet Research Agency’s efforts disproportionately targeted communities of color.

Our country has a long history of people trying to suppress civil rights and voting rights. That should not happen on Facebook. Our teams are working hard to prevent this type of abuse, and we’re asking for ongoing feedback from the civil rights community to make sure we’re taking the right steps.

One of the ways we’re doing this is through an audit of our efforts to strengthen civil rights on our platform. In May of last year, we asked Laura Murphy, a highly respected civil rights and civil liberties leader, to guide the audit. I committed to overseeing its progress. After speaking with more than 90 civil rights organizations, including the National Urban League, Laura provided an update in December that focused on our election-related efforts – including three steps we took to prevent voter suppression and encourage voter engagement:

  • First, we focused on voter suppression as a distinct civil rights challenge. We updated our policy prohibiting voter suppression to expressly ban misrepresentations about how to vote – such as claims that you can vote using an online app and statements about whether a vote will be counted. Other misinformation related to voting that is identified by our systems – including false claims of polling places being closed or long wait times – is now sent proactively to third-party fact-checkers for review. The revised policy also prohibits threats of violence related to voting or voter registration.
  • Second, we made it easier to report false voting information on Facebook. During the 2018 U.S. midterm election cycle, we added an option for people to report potential voter suppression content from their profiles and created specific reporting channels for state election authorities and for voting rights and election protection groups. These channels enabled us to review and act on this content faster and more effectively using both artificial intelligence and human review. 
  • Third, we expanded our efforts to encourage voter registration and engagement. Ahead of elections – and when people turn 18 – we remind them to register to vote. We also help them find their polling places and remind them to vote on Election Day.

These changes are making a difference. During the U.S. midterms, we removed approximately 45,000 pieces of content related to voter suppression, 90 percent of which we discovered proactively using artificial intelligence before they were reported by users. And Facebook and Instagram helped register an estimated 2 million people in 2018, according to our nonpartisan partner TurboVote.

This is all part of our broader work to protect elections. We now have more than 30,000 people working on safety and security worldwide, with 40 teams focused on elections. Last year, we removed thousands of Pages, Groups, and accounts involved in inauthentic behavior so they can’t mislead others about their identity and intentions – including in the midterm elections. And every day, we use artificial intelligence to block millions of attempts to create fake accounts.

We have also shared more information about political ads on Facebook to protect elections. Political advertising serves an important purpose; it helps candidates share their views with the public, and it can encourage people to get involved in the political process. But political ads can also stoke division and fear as well as manipulate and deceive — all of which we saw during and after the 2016 U.S. presidential election.

Helping people understand who’s trying to influence their vote will help us better defend against interference. That’s why we now require political advertisers in the U.S., the UK, the European Union, Israel, Ukraine, Brazil, and India to confirm who they are and where they’re located before they can run ads. You can then see details like who paid for the ads, how much they spent in what currency, and the demographics of who saw the ads in a searchable ad library that anyone can access. We made these updates ahead of elections in these countries and plan to roll out a global version by late June.

These are incredibly complex challenges, and the threats will persist. This is the reality for every company in the digital age. No one institution can solve this on its own. That’s why we’re working more closely than ever with other companies around the world, civil and human rights groups, law enforcement, governments, and NGOS to better identify and stop potential interference.

We have a lot of work to do. We must constantly improve to stay one step ahead while knowing that bad actors will never stop trying. We will continue to invest resources and time in these efforts because it’s critical to us that Facebook is a safe and productive place for our community. We were more prepared for these kinds of attacks in the 2018 U.S. midterms than we were in 2016, and we will improve even more between now and the 2020 U.S. election.

We are committed to continuing to share the progress we are making on these issues. This summer, Laura Murphy will give her next update on our efforts to advance civil rights across elections and other areas on our platform. This work is vitally important to our company, to our country, and to the people who rely on us to provide a safe place to discuss issues that matter to them. By continuing to partner with civil rights organizations and others, I believe more than ever that Facebook can empower the voiceless, strengthen our democracies, and ultimately help create a more connected and civically engaged world.

SOBA Edition: