Facebook, Mark Zuckerberg sued over anti-Muslim hate speech, violence by civil rights group

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Terry Collins and Jessica Guynn, USA TODAY
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Civil rights group Muslim Advocates is suing Facebook and top executives, including Mark Zuckerberg and Sheryl Sandberg, alleging the company misled the public about how safe its social media platforms are.

The complaint filed Thursday in federal court in Washington, D.C., argues that Facebook dupes lawmakers, civil rights groups and the public at large when it makes broad claims that it removes content that spews hate or incites violence and yet does not.

"This failure has amplified the volume of anti-Muslim hate bombarding Facebook users. And the anti-Muslim hate that’s pervasive on Facebook presents an enormous problem – both online and in real life," according to the lawsuit, which cites repeated comments made by former President Donald Trump and the role a militia group allegedly played in inciting a double murder in Kenosha, Wisconsin, last year.

“Just like a car company can’t exaggerate how safe their product is to boost sales, Facebook isn’t allowed to do that either. And that’s what they are doing," Mary Bauer, legal director at Muslim Advocates, told USA TODAY in an interview. "They are lying about the safety of their products to avoid regulation by Congress and to assuage the concerns of the public and nonprofit groups.”

For example, the suit cites testimony from Sandberg, Facebook’s chief operating officer, to the Senate Intelligence Committee in September 2018, when she said: “Senators, let me be clear. We are more determined than our opponents, and we will keep fighting. When bad actors try to use our site, we will block them. When content violates our policies, we will take it down.”

Yet months earlier, Megan Squire, a computer science professor at Elon University, reported a group called “Veterans Against Islamic Filth” for violating Facebook’s rules on dehumanizing speech, including comparisons to filth. Facebook refused to remove the content, the lawsuit said.

For its part, Facebook said Thursday, in an emailed statement, "We do not allow hate speech on Facebook and regularly work with experts, non-profits, and stakeholders to help make sure Facebook is a safe place for everyone, recognizing anti-Muslim rhetoric can take different forms. We have invested in AI technologies to take down hate speech, and we proactively detect 97 percent of what we remove."

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Whether the lawsuit has legal merit or not, one scholar says it highlights a troubling pattern.

"Putting aside the legal technicalities, the Muslim Advocates' case drives home that, absent compulsion from Congress or the courts, Facebook will continue to provide a haven for hate groups launching anti-Muslim attacks and fomenting racial strife, notwithstanding Facebook's repeated pledge to take down hate speech," said David Vladeck, a professor at Georgetown Law School in Washington, D.C.

Activists have spent years urging Facebook and other social media companies to do more to remove harmful content, particularly after the Capitol riot in January, yet say private meetings and public pressure campaigns have yielded little. In December, 30 Democratic members of the U.S. House of Representatives wrote a letter urging Facebook to remove anti-Muslim content – that came after 15 Democratic senators made a similar plea to the social network the month before.

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Facebook and other social media companies have broad discretion about how they police content, and Section 230 of the Communications Decency Act shields them from liability. Those protections don't extend to misrepresenting how safe their platforms are, attorney Peter Romer-Friedman, who represents Muslim Advocates, told USA TODAY.

“We think this is a very deliberate strategy by Facebook to convince the public that their product is safe, or at least that they are trying to make it safe, and to discourage regulators from taking any further action to enforce the law or adopt new laws that would make Facebook more liable,” Romer-Friedman said.

This article originally appeared on USA TODAY: Facebook, Zuckerberg sued over hate speech, violence against Muslims