Their requests add to a growing chorus of demands by civil rights advocates, advertisers, politicians and others that the company improve its handling of some of the most charged and divisive issues involving free speech and harm in U.S. society.
Facebook is facing a boycott of 1,000 advertisers, including Disney and Verizon, over its civil rights record. While the boycott failed to make a dent in the company’s bottom line when the company reported earnings last week, the pressure from the attorneys general is significant because they have the power to sue Facebook if their requests are not met.
Democrats from states including New Jersey, Connecticut, Illinois and California signed the letter.
”Hate speech is an issue across the internet and we are working to make Facebook as safe as possible by investing billions to keep hate off our platform and fight misinformation,” Facebook spokesman Andy Stone said in a statement. “We share the Attorneys General’s goal of ensuring people feel safe on the internet and look forward to continuing our work with them.“
Already, Facebook is the target of ongoing investigations by dozens of state attorneys general into the social network’s market power and its abuse of data in the Cambridge Analytica privacy scandal. The company is also facing an antitrust investigation from the U.S. Federal Trade Commission, and Zuckerberg was subject to a congressional grilling last week by lawmakers concerned about its market practices.
During the hearing, Rep. Pramila Jayapal (D-Wash.) pointed to a report that Zuckerberg was flippant about the impact of the boycott. She asked whether he was saying he didn’t care about it.
“No, Congresswoman, of course we care” about the advertising boycott, he said. But he said the company would not let advertisers dictate the company’s content policies.
Zuckerberg has also said the company won’t change its policies because of financial pressure.
Facebook has already made some changes, though. It has restricted far right “boogaloo” groups that were involved in violent acts at protests. It has added labels to speech by politicians that break its policies. And it is hiring a high-level executive who will focus on civil rights issues and issues of race throughout the company.
In an interview, New Jersey Attorney General Gurbir S. Grewal, who is Sikh, said that as an ethnic minority he had personally experienced online harassment and knows “how deeply those wounds can cut.”
He said that in April 2019, his office’s civil rights division had alerted Facebook to an anti-Semitic page called Rise Up Ocean County. Facebook managers allowed the page, which had comments referring to Orthodox Jews like “We need to get of them like Hitler did,” and “when they resist, bulldoze them,” to stay up for nearly a year and was only removed after a shooting at a kosher supermarket frequented by Orthodox Jews in Jersey City.
On Tuesday, the president of the American Psychological Association, the largest U.S. professional organization for psychologists, took Facebook’s handling of hate speech to task, saying the company was “knowingly harming the welfare of consumer, employees, and shareholders."
Correction: Twenty states attorney general signed the letter. An earlier version of this article said it was 21.