Black Caucus Presses Facebook on Russia, Diversity

The role the social media platform played in the 2016 presidential election was central to a closed-door meeting between the Congressional Black Caucus and Facebook COO Sheryl Sandberg this week.

by William Douglas, Greg Gordon, McClatchy Washington Bureau / October 13, 2017
Sheryl Sandberg, COO of Facebook, gives a talk at the opening of the International Automobile Exhibition (IAA) in Frankfurt am Main, Germany, 14 September 2017. Photo: Frank Rumpenhorst/dpa (Frank Rumpenhorst/DPA/ZUMA Press/TNS) TNS

(TNS) -- WASHINGTON — Facebook will boost its diversity efforts after hearing concerns from black lawmakers that Russian operatives used its social media platform to spread racially divisive messages during the 2016 elections, a top Facebook officer vowed Thursday.

Facebook Chief Operating Officer Sheryl Sandberg told members of the Congressional Black Caucus in a closed-door meeting that the company will appoint an African-American to its eight-member board, according to lawmakers who attended the meeting.

“What we tried to let her know is that she needs African-Americans up there who, when they see some of this stuff, will immediately say, ‘Oh, no, wait a minute, this is the message they’re trying to deliver and this is who it’s going to impact,’” said Rep. Emanuel Cleaver, D-Mo., a CBC member who attended the meeting.

“An African-American would detect it quickly, and she eventually said ‘You’re right,’” he said.

Facebook announced last month that it had discovered that Russians had bought 5,200 ads on its platform between June 2015 and May 2017, and that 3,000 of the ads were purchased by a company linked to a Russian “troll farm” known for spreading propaganda for the Kremlin.

Facebook turned the ads over to the House and Senate intelligence committees and to a Justice Department special counsel. Each is investigating Russia’s broad cyber offensive aimed at damaging 2016 Democratic presidential nominee Hillary Clinton and boosting Donald Trump’s chances of winning last year’s presidential election.

Most of the ads targeted social issues such as immigration, gun rights and gay rights, Facebook’s chief information security officer has said.

After meeting with Sandberg Wednesday, leaders of the House Intelligence Committee announced plans to make all the ads public. In a livestream interview Thursday with Axios co-founder Mike Allen, Sandberg said Facebook plans to help Congress understand how the Russians used the platform to target certain groups and geographic areas.

Sandberg met Thursday with the 49-member black caucus in a Capitol Hill conference room. Caucus members expressed alarm over ads that appeared to try to stoke racial passions over the Black Lives Matter movement and other civil rights issues.

“There’s a real concern that people are using the platform of Facebook … to divide this country,” said Rep. Cedric Richmond, R-La. “And when it’s a foreign country dividing our country and sowing seeds of division … that is a real concern. And that was universally agreed to in that room, everyone felt the same way — Facebook and the CBC.”

Sandberg told caucus members that she “prays every day that Facebook did not contribute to the outcome of the 2016 election,” according to Rep. G.K. Butterfield, D-N.C., a former CBC chairman.

Sandberg didn’t speak to reporters after the meeting. A Facebook spokesman, in an email, said the company didn’t “have anything further to share regarding what took place in the meeting.”

The spokesman, however, pointed to a post by Facebook CEO Mark Zuckerberg last month that outlined nine steps his company is taking to help prevent the platform from being used to influence elections.

The spokesman also attached a copy of a full-page newspaper ad Facebook took out last week to publicly detail the nine steps.

Richmond and other black caucus members described Thursday’s meeting as positive. However, some of the lawmakers expressed frustration when the conversation turned to the issue of diversity of Facebook’s workforce.

A study released by Facebook in August showed the company making small gains in diversifying its workforce.

The number of African-American Facebook employees in the United States grew to 3 percent, up from 2 percent last year. The number of Hispanic workers increased to 5 percent from 4 percent. The number of women in the company increased to 35 percent from 33 percent in 2016.

“We’ve been talking about diversity and inclusion for a long time,” Butterfield said. “We get a lot of lip service from technology companies. Some have responded. Apple has put an African-American on its board, Uber has done the same, but Facebook has not. But we got a commitment today from Ms. Sandberg that an African-American will be committed to the board in the very near future.”

Rep. Alcee Hastings, D-Fla., called the meeting a good first step.

“She’s committed to doing more,” Hastings said. “As a matter of fact, I don’t think she has a choice but to be committed to doing more.”

©2017 McClatchy Washington Bureau Distributed by Tribune Content Agency, LLC.