by Chloe Poynton, Article One, San Francisco, May 12, 2020
In 2018, Article One partnered with Facebook to conduct two country-level human rights impact assessments (HRIAs) in Sri Lanka and Indonesia. Today, Facebook published the executive summaries of both reports, a step we applaud and hope to see more of.
Understanding how online engagements can impact human rights – both online and offline – is fundamental to ensuring that Facebook can continue to contribute meaningfully to the world while respecting the rights of users and others impacted by activity on its platforms.
The Value of Human Rights Due Diligence
Our country-level HRIAs highlighted the importance of, and need for, robust human rights due diligence that prioritizes engagement with rightsholders. In conducting the assessments, Article One recognizes:
The human rights framework underpins the value of global norms. Human rights, by definition, are not country-specific. They are inalienable freedoms and entitlements of all people, at all times, and in all places—including both offline and online. A rights-based approach to addressing adverse impacts on its platform allows Facebook and other companies to apply a global standard across a diversity of cultural and historical contexts while allowing local context to inform responses.
The importance of conducting due diligence early and often. Proactively and continuously surfacing and mitigating human rights risks is the most effective approach to avoiding adverse human rights impacts and safeguarding the rights of individuals and communities impacted by social media globally. Facebook’s efforts to scale its approach to human rights due diligence is an important step towards meeting its responsibility to respect rights.
Engagement is essential. Engaging directly with rightsholders and their legitimate representatives is essential to understanding existing challenges and anticipating future risks. Robust engagement can serve as an early warning signal and support efforts to avoid infringing on the rights of Facebook users.
Our Approach & Findings
While Facebook is a global company, we recognize that the impact of its platforms can vary both between and within countries. For this reason, we sought to understand the local country context and shine a light on the unique experiences of vulnerable groups – including religious minorities, women, children, LGBTQ+ communities, and human rights defenders. To that end, we engaged with over 72 stakeholders including civil society organizations, academics, journalists, and human rights defenders from both countries as well as global human rights experts.
In conducting the assessments, we heard directly from rightsholders who struggled to balance the benefits of the Facebook platform – including the ability to use the platform in support of human rights such as free expression – and the very real challenges the platform presented. These challenges ranged from the proliferation of misinformation and disinformation that may have contributed to offline harm to misuse of the platform that infringed on the rights of vulnerable groups.
Our in-country engagements crystalized the value of conducting human rights due diligence early, as stakeholders noted that Facebook’s initial response to their concerns was slow and that proactive due diligence prior to 2018 could have helped surface and address adverse impacts earlier.
Engaging with Facebook
Our experience with Facebook suggests that the company maintains a strong commitment to address adverse impacts and ensure the platform contributes in positive ways to users and communities around the world. Facebook engaged robustly in the process and implemented numerous recommendations we proposed. In doing so, the company has made significant strides in addressing the impacts of its products and respecting the rights of users and others impacted in each country. Specific changes Facebook made in response to our recommendations include:
Corporate policies, including the creation of a new policy to enable the removal of verified misinformation that contributes to the risk of imminent offline physical harm and the expansion of a bullying policy to increase protections to all individuals, not just children.
Operational-level engagement, including launching Third Party Fact Checkers, expanding Trusted Partner networks, and hiring a new Human Rights Director.
Product interventions including increasing friction for sharing problematic content across the platform, new content demotions, and improved reporting/blocking tools for Facebook’s Messenger app.
For a full list of steps Facebook has taken in response to our assessments, please see the company’s statements on the HRIAs.
We recognize that human rights due diligence is an ongoing and iterative process that continually evolves. We have seen first-hand the evolution within Facebook and while the company has more to do, the decision to undertake and release the findings of these HRIAs sends a strong signal that it is building a human rights due diligence approach that prioritizes rightsholders.
We commend Facebook for taking a bold and meaningful step by:
integrating the findings of our assessment into their policies and products;
making the findings of these human rights assessments public; and
acknowledging harms it may have contributed to.
It is our hope that Facebook’s decision to conduct and publish the findings of the HRIAs will help to advance the field of business and human rights, and more importantly, lead to more rights-respecting social media platforms.
We send our sincere thanks to all the individuals who contributed valuable time, insights and recommendations to our assessments. Your efforts have helped shape our findings, recommendations and most importantly the steps Facebook has taken to mitigate risks related to its platforms in Sri Lanka and Indonesia, as well as globally.