Facebook's Sandberg Courts Civil Rights Groups That Claim Bias

(Bloomberg) -- Facebook Inc. Chief Operating Officer Sheryl Sandberg met with civil rights groups and members of the Congressional Black Caucus during her visit to Washington this week as the company fends off criticism that its platform has allowed racial discrimination to proliferate.

Sandberg met with Caucus chairwoman Karen Bass, a California Democrat, House Homeland Security Chairman Bennie Thompson, a Mississippi Democrat, and a host of civil rights groups in separate meetings Wednesday, according to a Facebook spokeswoman. The discussions centered on Facebook’s role in fighting voter suppression efforts that target minority communities, three people familiar with the meetings said.

During Sandberg’s meeting with Representative Bass, the two also discussed the role the company could play in ensuring that minorities are adequately counted in the upcoming census, according to one of the people familiar with the discussion.

A spokeswoman for Bass confirmed the meeting but wouldn’t elaborate on what was discussed. A representative for Thompson didn’t immediately return a request for comment.

Sandberg held the meetings as Facebook and other tech companies face growing scrutiny from Democratic lawmakers over racial and gender biases on their platforms and in their products and algorithms. Republicans, meanwhile, continue to accuse social-media companies of squelching conservative perspectives.

Facebook also has drawn the ire of civil rights groups that accuse it of not doing enough to curb the spread of misinformation, white nationalism and race-based voter suppression campaigns on its platform.

Independent investigators have found that Russian operatives seeking to influence the 2016 presidential election through social media heavily focused on blacks. The researchers found that black Americans were often targeted with memes about police brutality and fed voter suppression messages.

In March, Facebook announced it would ban content that references white nationalism and white separatism after concluding the ideologies can not be "meaningfully separated from white supremacy and organized hate groups.”

Sandberg also met with civil rights advocates including the Leadership Conference on Civil and Human Rights, a coalition of civil rights groups, and social justice organization Color of Change, officials from those groups confirmed.

Sandberg discussed Facebook’s progress on its civil rights audit, in which company officials are assessing voter suppression, advertising targeting and algorithm biases on its platform, two people familiar with the meeting said.

Rashad Robinson, president of Color of Change, one of the groups that had called for the audit, said he’s seen a different level of commitment since Sandberg’s office took responsibility for the issue, including regular communication between the COO herself and their teams.

"The engagement and commitment from Sheryl has been a welcome change from what we were experiencing this time last year," said Robinson, who attended the meeting.

Sandberg was also in town for long-planned meetings with senators on Capitol Hill about privacy regulations.

©2019 Bloomberg L.P.