As civil rights leaders prepared for a town hall event in Atlanta last month featuring Facebook’s second-in-command Sheryl Sandberg, optimism ran high that company officials would address long-standing concerns about racism on the platform. Near the top of the list were the voter suppression messages that flooded Facebook during the 2016 presidential election and, the civil rights leaders feared, would do so again as another election season was dawning.

But as they began to arrive in Atlanta for the Sept. 26 event, that hope turned to outrage as civil rights leaders learned that Facebook had announced what many now call the “Trump exemption” — meaning the policy allowing any politician to lie freely in ads or free posts without consequences.

Though Facebook has portrayed this decision as reflecting the nation’s ideals of unfettered political speech, civil rights leaders say they see another value emerging preeminent in Facebook’s calculations: the unfettered quest to profit from political advertising.

“The only principle is business as usual and trying to line their pockets,” said Arisha Hatch, vice president for Color of Change, one of several civil rights groups that had been in regular contact with Sandberg and others at the company. “There is no principled stand that people can take that would allow them to behave on the platform as voter suppressionists have behaved in our country for decades.”

Hatch and others view the company’s tolerance of deception against the backdrop of the nation’s ugly history of voter suppression, much of it conducted by politicians and government officials. The Russian disinformation campaign that backed Donald Trump’s election relied heavily on social media postings discouraging black voters from casting ballots, in what civil rights leaders see as a foreign update of old and largely homegrown political tactics.

Facebook’s announcement was one of several incidents in recent months that have inflamed its fragile relations with civil rights leaders, undoing years of progress on several fronts, including combating housing discrimination in the company’s ad platform.

Among the more damaging was chief executive Mark Zuckerberg’s speech at Georgetown University last week in which he invoked the legacies of civil rights icon the Rev. Martin Luther King Jr. and revered 19th-century abolitionist Frederick Douglass in defending the company’s approach to political speech. The civil rights leaders saw this as a brazen act of appropriation that showed little awareness of the false and misleading information that King in particular battled in his lifetime.

King’s daughter Bernice King lashed out at Facebook in a tweet saying, “I heard #MarkZuckerberg’s ‘free expression’ speech, in which he referenced my father. I’d like to help Facebook better understand the challenges #MLK faced from disinformation campaigns launched by politicians. These campaigns created an atmosphere for his assassination.”

In a tense exchange during Facebook CEO Mark Zuckerberg's testimony on Capitol Hill, Rep. Joyce Beatty (D-Ohio) criticized Facebook's approach to civil rights. (Reuters)

The issue flared again as Zuckerberg testified on Capitol Hill Wednesday. In one of the most tense exchanges during hours of testimony, Rep. Joyce Beatty (D-Ohio) chastised him for not having more diversity on his leadership team and described Facebook’s approach to civil rights as “appalling and disgusting.”

Facebook’s latest “Diversity Report” says black people fill 3.1 percent of its “senior leadership” positions. For Hispanics, it’s 3.5 percent.

Vanita Gupta, president of the Leadership Conference on Civil & Human Rights, a Washington-based umbrella group, said Facebook’s decision to permit politicians to lie on the platform left her “livid,” and she expressed her concerns directly to Zuckerberg in a phone call before he spoke at Georgetown. In that call, Gupta said, she told Zuckerberg that Facebook lacked the expertise in civil rights it needs to handle such matters responsibly.

“‘I do have civil rights expertise'” on Facebook’s staff, Zuckerberg replied, according to Gupta’s recollection. “‘I have several people from the Obama White House.’”

The answer exasperated her, she said, because he appeared to see demands for civil rights strictly in political terms — as opposed to legal or moral ones — and somehow a liberal equivalent to the unproven conservative claims that Facebook suppresses voices on the right.

“That is the level of the disconnect,” Gupta said. “There’s not even an understanding of what civil rights expertise might be and why they would want to have it.”

Facebook spokeswoman Ruchika Budhraja declined to comment on the conversation between Zuckerberg and Gupta but said the company had worked hard to consult with civil rights leaders.

“Our partnership with civil rights groups has led to important outcomes, such as combating voter suppression and hate, and preventing discrimination in ads on Facebook,” Budhraja said. “We’ll continue partnering and seeking input from the civil rights community to address the concerns they have about our policies and products.”

Intensive conversations with civil rights groups began in 2017, shortly after Facebook revealed that Russian disinformation operatives had bought ads on the platform to influence the presidential vote the year before. Among the top goals in Russian ads and free posts was discouraging African Americans from voting, which U.S. officials and numerous outside researchers concluded was part of a coordinated effort to damage the prospects of Democrat Hillary Clinton and help elect Trump.

Civil rights leaders agreed they had made strides in their talks with Facebook and praised Sandberg for meeting with them and overseeing a civil rights audit they had requested. The audit, though still unfinished, has raised hopes that the company was addressing concerns about racism on the platform, as well as diversity and other issues at Facebook. The civil rights leaders expected the Atlanta town hall would mark a new step in that progress.

But as they began assembling for the event, word spread that another top Facebook official, Nick Clegg, had on Sept. 24 outlined the exemption for politicians’ speech at a conference in Washington. He said the company’s system of fact-checkers, a central part of its response to the rampant spread of online disinformation in 2016, would not be used to identify, label or otherwise address outright falsehoods when politicians uttered them.

“It is not our role to intervene when politicians speak,” said Clegg, a former British deputy prime minister who became Facebook’s vice president for global policy and communications last year. “That’s why I want to be really clear today. We do not submit speech by politicians to our independent fact-checkers, and we generally allow it on the platform even when it would otherwise breach our normal content rules.”

Civil rights leaders and other critics of the policy have noted that President Trump, whose deceptive and misleading statements have been a regular feature of his presidency, spent heavily on Facebook in 2016 and is doing so again in his reelection campaign.

The company’s ad archive shows that President Trump’s Facebook page has spent more than $21 million on ads since May 2018, and his Democratic rivals have been spending heavily as well. Facebook, citing the policy announced by Clegg, refused a request by the campaign of Democratic candidate Joe Biden this month to remove an ad making false claims about him and his son’s activities in Ukraine.

Facebook’s policies still prohibit voter suppression — even when practiced by politicians — but civil rights leaders express little confidence that the platform will enforce this with sufficient speed and breadth. Addressing obvious falsehoods, such as lies about the dates or locations of polling, would not be enough to defeat politicians’ efforts to hold down minority voting participation on the platform, say civil rights leaders.

They express particular worry that American political figures could engage in tactics similar to those used in Russia’s disinformation campaigns. The Internet Research Agency, in St. Petersburg, used fake social media accounts in 2016 to target African Americans concerned about police violence and other issues. The Russian-based Facebook group “Woke Blacks,” for example, wrote, “We cannot resort to the lesser of two devils. Then we’d surely be better off without voting AT ALL.”

Facebook also offers the ability to target its users with a rare precision, as the Russians did with an ad on Election Day in 2016 directed at users with interests in civil rights, King and Malcolm X. It said of Trump and Clinton, “Not one represents Black People. Don’t go to vote. Only this way we can change the way of things…”

Facebook has made strides in detecting and shutting down such foreign operations, but civil rights groups and disinformation researchers express little faith in the company’s ability to find and act against domestic political figures who may attempt similar tactics. The exemption allowing politicians to lie makes that problem worse, they say, even if Facebook does not officially tolerate voter suppression.

“They can’t have both: They’re not going to be able to stop voter suppression campaigns and allow for politicians to conduct disinformation,” said Kate Starbird, a University of Washington associate professor who researches disinformation. “They might catch one or two voter-suppression messages, but they will miss most of it.”

Politicians, their campaigns and their parties long have worked to discourage particular groups from voting. A top aide to former Maryland governor Robert L. Ehrlich Jr., a Republican, allegedly organized robocalls in 2010 telling more than 110,000 Democrats in predominantly black areas that they could “relax” because their party’s candidate already had been “successful.” Prosecutors called the robocalls an effort to keep African Americans from casting ballots.

“Voter intimidation and suppression have a long history in this country, and not just on the Internet,” said Wendy Weiser, director of the Democracy Program at the Brennan Center for Justice at New York University’s School of Law.

Civil rights leaders express similar concerns about the coming 2020 Census because of the possibility of misleading social media messages warning immigrants, for example, that any information collected will be shared with Immigration and Customs Enforcement.

Undergirding these fears is the experience that civil rights leaders have had in dealing with Facebook, which they say has been slow to address incidents that concerned them.

They point to an incident from August when a Texas-based conservative group used Facebook to encourage people to bring weapons to a protest outside the nation’s largest annual gathering of Muslims, which was happening in Houston. One Facebook posting from a person affiliated with the group made a cryptic reference to “long guns.” The Houston Press cited another Facebook post calling the gathering hosted by the Islamic Society of North America a “Terrorist Fundraiser,” listing the location of the event and saying that “Open Carry is allowed.”

Muslim Advocates, which was among the civil rights groups in regular conversation with Facebook, flagged the “long guns” posting to company officials several days before the event. Facebook removed the post but only after more than 24 hours had passed — a delay Muslim Advocates and other civil rights groups considered excessive.

“We were going to Facebook thinking that some of these issues were going to be taken seriously by the company,” said Madihha Ahussain, the group’s special counsel for anti-Muslim bigotry. “We were given the runaround.”

Budhraja, the Facebook spokeswoman, said Facebook removed the post and three others it found related to the Houston protest. The initial post shared by Muslim Advocates, she said, did not include enough information to make an immediate decision to remove it, but subsequent research, including into the group’s past activities, showed it violated the policy prohibiting posts that encourage people to intimidate or harass other people.

Tony Romm contributed to this report.