Following an hourlong meeting at Facebook's Washington, DC, office on Friday, racial justice activists who met with Facebook COO Sheryl Sandberg said they were hopeful about the future changes their conversation would produce, but said the social network executive made no concrete promises.
Sandberg met the group as part of her tour of DC, as government scrutiny of Facebook increases over the site's influence on the US election.
"I think that it’s always important that people in leadership roles hear from users affected in different ways," DeRay McKesson, co-chair of the nonprofit Campaign Zero, said. "It was the beginning of the conversation. The true measure will be in six months or a year when we’ve all had an opportunity to put things into practice."
On Friday, Sandberg promised the Congressional Black Caucus that Facebook would hire a black member to its currently all-white board. She made no similar promise to the activists who met with on that same day.
Sandberg met with McKesson, dosomething.org's Blair Imani, Campaign Zero's Brittany Packnett, Paola Mendoza of the Women's March, Campaign Zero's Samuel Sinyangwe, and Sam White. Facebook's head of diversity Maxine Williams was also there, along with policy managers from the company.
Sandberg and the activists discussed Russian influence on the 2016 election, harassment and abuse on Facebook, and diversity and inclusion in Facebook's hiring practices.
Summing Facebook's problems up, Sam White, a progressive media personality and activist, said, "They’re facing a trust conversation. They’re aware of it."
McKesson said he challenged Sandberg's talking point about Russian influence.
"She pointed out that the number of posts that Russians bought was small. We’re living testaments to not needing a lot of posts to be influential," he said. "That’s not how we think about social media. You just need the right posts to gain traction."
He also told Sandberg that users, particularly activists like himself, may not trust Facebook because of how the social network treats them.
"It appears that when users complained about issues, nothing happens," McKesson said. "But when the government complains, they do things. She pushed back on that idea, though."
According to McKesson, Sandberg offered a non-answer to the question of Facebook's influence on the 2016 election: "She said that all social media had an impact." According to McKesson, Sandberg did acknowledge that Zuckerberg's understanding of the impact of fake news and Russian ads had grown since he called the idea "crazy."
Blair Imani, civic action lead at dosomething.org, said Sandberg wanted "to hear about what organizers are using Facebook for and how they can support them and contribute to them. Activists are a community they want to cultivate." Imani said they discussed Facebook's Town Hall feature as it related to bolstering civic engagement. She characterized Sandberg as "concerned over the racial divisiveness" of Russian ads.
White said that Sandberg denounced people who had harassed the activists and sent them death threats but that he and the other activists pushed her on what simply constitutes "mean speech" vs. hate speech.
"I think they’re still figuring out what constitutes violent speech. We wanted to push what they were considering. There are some things that people consider legit political opinions that I would consider threatening to people’s basic human rights."
Packnett said Sandberg was "interested to hear why about why trust in the platform is a challenge given these experiences [with harassment]," making it clear that Sandberg is working to repair user and government trust in Facebook.
McKesson said the activists pushed for Facebook's 1,000 new hires to be aware of "the cultural dynamics of the US — race, privilege, equity" and for those hires to be mostly people of color. White said hiring a black board member "is a great start, but it isn't enough."
"The experience online continues to be heavily segregated," McKesson said. "Does Facebook's responsibility include a commitment to inclusion, a place designed for you to be in proximity to people who are different than you and will challenge you? Facebook is still trying to operationalize its commitment to those ideals."
What exactly will come of the meeting remains in question.
"They promised that it would be an ongoing conversation," White said. "That's a phrase I hate; it's a pet peeve. But there was a strong sense that there would be follow-up."
A Facebook spokesperson declined to comment, saying the meeting was private, but said it would be fair to characterize it as an "ongoing conversation."
Blake Montgomery is a reporter for BuzzFeed News and is based in San Francisco.
Contact Blake Montgomery at firstname.lastname@example.org.
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