- Facebook and Instagram are creating internal teams to study potential racial bias in their products, as first reported by The Wall Street Journal and confirmed by Business Insider.
- “We are focusing our efforts on challenges underrepresented groups tell us they face on Instagram, from reviewing how we enforce our harassment policies, to evaluating our algorithms for potential biases,” a Facebook representative told Business Insider.
- Instagram had previously banned similar efforts to study race, while Facebook required employees to get permission from top executives, according to The Journal.
- The changes come as Facebook faces growing criticism both internally and externally to address hate speech and racial bias on its platforms, and just weeks after its first civil-rights audit.
- Visit Business Insider’s homepage for more stories.
Facebook and Instagram are establishing internal teams dedicated to studying how their products might be disproportionately harming underrepresented groups, as first reported by The Wall Street Journal on Tuesday and confirmed by Business Insider.
“Any bias in our systems and policies runs counter to providing a platform for everyone to express themselves. While we’re always working to create a more equitable experience, we are setting up additional efforts to continue this progress,” Instagram’s head of product, Vishal Shah, said in a statement.
Instagram’s new “equity team” will look at how its products, features, and algorithms are designed as well as how the company enforces harassment policies to ensure they’re built with fairness and inclusivity in mind, the Facebook spokeswoman Stephanie Otway told Business Insider.
“Facebook is working in tandem on similar priority efforts,” including a group tasked with bringing more diverse voices into the product-development process, she said. “It’s early days and we plan to share more details on this work in the coming months.”
Previously, however, both companies have limited such research, according to The Journal. It reported that, last year, Facebook prohibited employees from studying race without explicit permission from CEO Mark Zuckerberg or one of his top executives and that Instagram responded to an internal analysis showing that Black users could have their accounts disabled at higher rates under a proposed policy change by making minor tweaks before barring employees from studying the issue further.
Otway told Business Insider that none of Facebook’s apps collected race data and that Facebook’s approval process was meant to ensure that such research was done responsibly and with respect for users’ privacy.
She also said the Instagram analysis was characterized inaccurately because researchers used multicultural affinity data that might not match someone’s race and that they stopped the work because the results were unreliable.
Both Facebook and Instagram have faced criticism in the past over how their products affect people of different races and ethnicities.
Last year, the US Department of Housing and Urban Development sued Facebook, accusing it of illegally “encouraging, enabling, and causing housing discrimination” with its ad-targeting tools (the lawsuit is still pending).
HUD’s claim was backed up by academic research shortly after, which concluded that Facebook’s algorithm discriminated by race and gender despite advertisers trying to reach a broad audience. Even after Facebook agreed to adjust the algorithm, research months later said the updated version still faced the same problems.
Activists, major advertisers, and even employees have ramped up pressure on Facebook recently to address racial bias in its products, on its platforms, and within its walls. Much of that has been fueled by CEO Mark Zuckerberg’s decision earlier this year not to remove controversial posts by President Donald Trump about protests against police brutality and racial injustice.
The stance prompted major civil-rights groups to call for advertisers to boycott Facebook and Instagram over their hate-speech policies, which more than 500 brands eventually joined. Facebook executives failed to address the groups’ concerns in multiple meetings, refusing to agree to a majority of their demands.
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Earlier this month, Facebook also released its first civil-rights audit, which criticized the company’s refusal to fact-check or moderate politicians and called on it to hire more civil-rights experts beyond the one new position it has said it will fill. Despite Facebook’s pledges over the years to increase diversity within its ranks, its latest annual report showed little progress.
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