Facebook Violated DC Consumer Protection Law by Falsely Telling Congress, Civil Rights Groups & Consumers that it Removed Hate Speech and Other Prohibited Content
Washington, DC — Today, Muslim Advocates, Gupta Wessler PLLC and University of Chicago Law Professor Aziz Z. Huq filed a lawsuit alleging that Facebook CEO Mark Zuckerberg, Sheryl Sandberg and other Facebook executives have deceived Congress and consumers by falsely stating that the company removes content that violates its standards and policies.
The lawsuit, filed in the District of Columbia Superior Court, alleges that over the past three years Facebook’s top executives violated the D.C. Consumer Protection Procedures Act by falsely testifying to Congress and falsely promising national civil rights leaders that when the company learns of content that violates its standards or policies, that content is taken down. Instead, Facebook routinely fails to remove or take down such content.
Despite these claims, the complaint explains how Muslim Advocates and others have routinely informed Facebook about hate speech and hate groups that violate Facebook’s community standards and policies, only to see the company refuse to remove the content. It describes how Facebook’s failure to keep its promises has enabled anti-Muslim hate speech, groups and event pages to threaten and harm the Muslim community and others, both online and in real life.
The lawsuit asks the Court to require Facebook and its executives to stop making false and misleading statements about the enforcement of Facebook’s standards and policies, and seeks modest damages for the harm to Muslim Advocates.
“Facebook’s willingness to allow hate and threats that violate its own policies to run rampant on its platform is a grave societal problem, but it is also a legal problem,” said Muslim Advocates Legal Director Mary Bauer. “As we allege, by repeatedly misrepresenting that Facebook removes prohibited content when it learns of it, Mark Zuckerberg, Sheryl Sandberg and other top Facebook executives have made false and deceptive statements to Congress and their users. Because of Facebook’s failures, Muslims in America have faced hate and threats. We hope that this lawsuit is a first step towards finally holding Facebook accountable for all the harm and hate that the company has unleashed.”
“When corporate executives testify before Congress and speak with national leaders about their business practices, they must tell the truth,” said Peter Romer-Friedman, a Principal at Gupta Wessler PLLC and former counsel to Senator Edward M. Kennedy. “As we allege, Facebook’s executives have not told Congress the truth about Facebook’s enforcement of its content moderation policies, especially when it comes to anti-Muslim hate speech and groups. Just as a car company can’t make deceptive statements about its vehicles’ safety, Facebook can’t make deceptive statements to get more people to use Facebook and discourage efforts to regulate the company.”
Under the D.C. Consumer Protection Procedures Act, it is illegal for a company to make material misrepresentations about a good or service in the District of Columbia. The lawsuit filed today alleges that Facebook’s executives have repeatedly done this by falsely telling Congress that the company takes down all content that violates its standards and policies when Facebook learns about such content. For example:
- Facebook’s CEO Mark Zuckerberg told the House Financial Services Committee on Oct. 23, 2019: “If anyone, including a politician, is saying things that can cause, that is calling for violence or could risk imminent physical harm… we will take that content down.”
- Facebook’s COO Sheryl Sandberg told the Senate Intelligence Committee on Sept. 5, 2018: “When bad actors try to use our site, we will block them. When content violates our policies, we will take it down.”
- Facebook’s Head of Cybersecurity Policy Nathaniel Gleicher told the House Permanent Select Committee on Intelligence on June 18, 2020: “Groups that promote violence, groups that glorify violence, we identify, investigate, and we remove them from the platform whenever we see it.”
For years, Muslim Advocates and other civil rights allies have urged Facebook and its executives to remove harmful content and groups on Facebook that violate the company’s community standards and other policies. In direct contrast to what Facebook executives have told Congress and national civil rights groups, the complaint alleges that Facebook has routinely failed or declined to take this content down. For example, the complaint alleges that:
- In December 2017: Muslim Advocates provided Facebook a list of 26 Anti-Muslim hate groups, 19 of which are still active today.
- In August 2019, Muslim Advocates warned Facebook that a militia group, the Texas Patriot Network, was using the platform’s event pages to plan an armed protest at the largest Muslim convention in the country. Though the event page was taken down after 25 hours, the militia’s Facebook page is still active.
- In September 2018, Dr. Megan Squire, a professor at Elon University, published a paper identifying 201 anti-Muslim hate groups in the U.S. that have group pages on Facebook. Today, around 100 of those groups remain on the platform.
- Dr. Squire also reported to Facebook numerous anti-Muslim group pages that violated Facebook’s standards, including “Infidels Unite Against Islam,” “Death to Islam Undercover,” “Veterans Against Islamic Filth,” “Purge Worldwide (The Cure for the Islamic disease in your country,” “Filth of Islam” and “Death to Murdering Islamic Muslim Cult Members.” In response, Facebook refused to take those groups down.
- In August 2020, following the police shooting of Jacob Blake, a militia group called the Kenosha Guard created a Facebook event page that encouraged people to “take up arms” and defend the city from “evil thugs.” Subsequently, an armed man traveled to Wisconsin and killed two people who were protesting police violence. It was later revealed that the event page was flagged to Facebook at least 455 times but was never taken down until well after the shootings, and the page administrator took down the event page, not Facebook.
Muslim Advocates is a national civil rights organization working in the courts, in the halls of power and in communities to halt bigotry in its tracks. We ensure that American Muslims have a seat at the table with expert representation so that all Americans may live free from hate and discrimination.
Gupta Wessler PLLC is a national appellate, constitutional, and complex litigation boutique. We litigate high-stakes cases in the U.S. Supreme Court and courts across the country. Through all of our efforts, we aim to help shape the law in ways that enhance justice and improve people’s lives. The firm has offices in Washington, DC, Boston, and San Francisco.