By Ryan Tracy
WASHINGTON -- A group of Democratic attorneys general jumped into the debate over monitoring content on social media Wednesday, urging Facebook Inc. to take additional steps to combat harassment and hate speech.
In a letter to Facebook executives, the attorneys general for California, New York, New Jersey, Illinois and other states called on the social-media platform to offer live, real-time assistance so users can report intimidation and harassment.
They also asked Facebook to improve its filtering and blocking tools for hate speech and to be more cooperative with law-enforcement authorities investigating hate crimes.
"They are really the biggest vehicles out there for spreading hate and disinformation," New Jersey Attorney General Gurbir Grewal, whose office helped organize the letter, said in an interview.
A Facebook spokesman said the company shares the concerns of the attorneys general, and noted it regularly removes hateful content or covers it with a warning screen. Facebook said it removed 9.6 million pieces of content for violating policies against hate speech in the first quarter of this year, up from 5.7 million in the previous quarter.
All the signatories of the letter were Democrats. A spokesman for Mr. Grewal said his office offered some Republican attorneys general an opportunity to sign an early draft of the letter, and that he welcomed GOP colleagues endorsing it now that it is public.
Precisely what defines hate speech has sometimes been a point of contention between members of the two parties, with Republicans arguing that concerns over hateful speech has been used to arbitrarily squelch conservative viewpoints.
During a House antitrust subcommittee hearing last week that included testimony from tech executives, Rep. Jim Jordan (R., Ohio) asked them whether they were worried about online discourse where "anyone gets attacked for expressing a viewpoint."
In the hearing, Facebook CEO Mark Zuckerberg said he shared those concerns, adding "I am very worried about some of the forces of illiberalism that I see in this country that are pushing against free expression."
In their letter, the attorneys general for 19 states and the District of Columbia defined harassing content as that "focused on characteristics protected by the civil rights laws that many of us are charged with enforcing, including race, religion, ethnicity, sexual orientation, gender and gender identity, and disability."
Mr. Grewal, who is Sikh and wears a turban, said he often finds himself the target of hateful comments about his religion or appearance. He said one of the most effective things Facebook could do is respond more quickly to users in distress.
He cited one case where his office last year alerted the company to a Facebook group based around Lakewood, N.J. The group was organized around expelling Orthodox Jews from the area, and online comments included language inciting violence such as "We need to get rid of them like Hitler did," according to a letter Mr. Grewal's office sent to Facebook in April 2019.
Facebook removed the group about 10 months later, Mr. Grewal said.
"This is a platform where hate and disinformation spreads like wildfire in minutes," he said. "Somebody needs to be able to pick up a phone to call and get help."
In his House testimony last week, Mr. Zuckerberg said Facebook has invested billions of dollars to police hate speech, involving both employee review and automated detection systems.
"We're now at 89 percent of the hate speech that we remove before anyone even reports it to us," he said.
In their letter, the attorneys general said that "although Facebook has made some progress in counteracting the use of its platform to dehumanize and demean, that is just the beginning of what is necessary."
The letter cites a January 2020 survey of online harassment commissioned by the Anti-Defamation League and conducted by YouGov. Of the roughly 2,000 respondents, 44% had experienced harassment online and of those, 77% said the harassment occurred at least in part on Facebook.
The letter to Facebook follows a separate initiative by attorneys general from most U.S. states examining the company for possible antitrust violations.
Mr. Grewal said New Jersey is willing to use the tools at its disposal if the company doesn't act, while noting that Facebook has broad immunity and latitude to police content under Section 230 of the federal Communications Decency Act.
Facebook is facing pressure from many directions to do more to combat harmful content. Hundreds of advertisers paused spending on the platform earlier this summer, citing insufficient action to curb hate speech and misinformation. In July, a civil rights audit Facebook commissioned characterized the company's efforts to date as "too reactive and piecemeal." Facebook has said it can do better and is creating teams to address racial bias on its main platform and its Instagram unit.
Write to Ryan Tracy at firstname.lastname@example.org
Corrections and Amplifications
This article was corrected on August 7, 2020 because it misquoted Mark Zuckerberg as saying he's worried about "forces of the liberalism that I see in this country that are pushing against free expression." The correct quote should read that he's worried about "forces of illiberalism that I see in this country that are pushing against free expression."