Jan 28, 2022 - Technology
Column / Signal Boost

Exclusive: Meta's civil rights chief aims to "turn the knob" for good


Photo Illustration: Shoshana Gordon/Axios. Photo: Meta

A year ago, Facebook brought in Roy L. Austin Jr. to lead a new team focused on civil rights. Since then, he has assembled a squad of experts advising parent company Meta on everything from voting rights to hate speech to ensuring new products don't have discriminatory impact.

  • Austin's team of nine must tackle those tough issues inside a company of nearly 70,000 employees serving more than 3 billion users around the world.

In a series of exclusive interviews, Austin and members of his team spoke to Axios about the work they are taking on, the challenges facing Meta and more.

Flashback: Meta hired Austin following the completion of an external civil rights audit amid a raft of complaints that the company's products were having disparate and discriminatory impact on marginalized groups.

  • Austin, a civil rights attorney, is a former federal prosecutor and was director of the White House's office of urban affairs, justice, and opportunity during the Obama administration.
  • "At first I wasn’t interested," Austin told Axios. "But what hit me was a company that touches 3.5 billion people, and I felt like if I could turn the knob just a little bit toward justice with a company with that kind of reach, that that would really be an amazing opportunity."

Austin's team has spent much of its first year trying to get to know — and be known by — the many teams within Meta and implementing dozens of recommendations from the civil rights audit.

  • Its most prominent external move was a letter Austin sent to the Los Angeles Police Department, calling on the agency to stop using fake Facebook profiles to surveil the public.
  • Austin's team was also at the forefront of getting Facebook to apologize publicly and examine why its algorithms associated a video depicting Black men with the tag "primates."
  • A race measurement project, still in the planning stages, aims to establish whether and how the experience of using Meta's products differs along racial lines.
  • Another effort is focused on having civil rights implications taken into consideration at the earliest stages of product design.

Between the lines: External critics are less concerned with who's on Facebook's team or what first-year efforts they've made than with the team's size, which looks too small to accomplish what's needed.

  • Civil rights groups continue to find instances of discrimination within Meta's existing products even as the company expands into areas such as encrypted messaging, video-capturing goggles and the metaverse.
  • Just yesterday, a coalition of civil rights groups filed a brief in federal appeals court arguing that Meta's advertising products continue to have discriminatory impact despite pledges to end race-based targeting.
  • "I hope that the leaders at Facebook realize that the civil rights team needs to grow exponentially," Laura Murphy, who oversaw Facebook's landmark civil rights audit, told the Washington Post.

The other side: Austin and his colleagues insist their team is small but mighty, focused on building relationships throughout the company and empowering others concerned with civil rights to speak up as well. "A professor I once worked with said, 'How do you eat an elephant? One bite at a time,'" Austin said.

  • Austin notes that he only had a team of six employees and three interns when he was working at the White House during the Obama Administration.
  • "There isn't anyone in the company who doesn't think that their team should be bigger," Austin said. "But I don't want to say that that's limiting my ability to have the impact that I hope to have."

Austin said he has gotten everything he has asked for, although some of the concessions seem modest.

  • Examples he cites: Facebook initially suggested a team of four, and he lobbied for and got a team of 9. The company also initially planned for Austin to report to someone who reports to the general counsel, but he successfully convinced them he should report to general counsel.

The big picture: With 3.6 billion users and myriad products from Facebook to Instagram to Quest and the metaverse, the issues that the team faces are diverse and numerous.

But it's that same scale, and the potential to drive change ,that convinced Austin to join the company.

  • It also helped him recruit others, such as former FBI agent Cynthia Deitle, who gave up a job offer in academia to join Facebook as Austin's first hire.

It was the hiring of Austin that also swayed Manar Waheed, who worked at the ACLU on race discrimination issues before joining Meta.

  • "Roy Austin is not the person you want to hire if you want to check a box and get a nod," Waheed said.
  • Social media is where a tremendous amount of hate speech and harassment takes place, but it's also where protests are planned and communities are formed, she said. "It has the opportunity to be the most equitable tool or completely devastating. I want to be a part of trying to make it better."

What to watch: An open question is how things will play out when civil rights concerns bump up against other issues, including political sensitivities and business concerns. Austin, for example, takes a seemingly tougher stance than many other Facebook leaders when it comes to its obligations around content moderation.

  • Austin doesn't think Facebook needs to be an "arbiter of truth" to come down harder on misinformation.
  • "We’re living in a time and a society where there are people who propagate obvious falsehoods," Austin said. "My position is, when those falsehoods injure historically and systemically marginalized communities, that they don’t belong."
  • Likewise, he says, when it comes to COVID-19. "Again, I want the truth. Vaccines work. Vaccines save lives. That is the truth. In my mind there is not a second thing to that."
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