“I know you have a number of diversity initiatives and you have increased Black representation from two to three percent. This does not meet the definition of building a racially diverse community. Do you plan to add an African American to your leadership team?”
“We will certainly work with you. This is an important issue,” Zuckerberg responded.
It was Rep. Yvette Clarke (D-N.Y.), however, who pointed out why lack of Black employees and leadership at Facebook prevented the company from catching widespread manipulation of the platform by Russian hackers during the 2016 election.
“There have been media reports about how more than 3,000 Russian ads were bought on Facebook to incite racial & religious division & chaos in the US during the 2016 election,” Clarke said.
“I’m concerned that there are not eyes that are culturally competent looking at these things. Do you think the lack of diversity and culturally competent personnel in your C-suite and throughout your organization are a problem in this regard?”
“Congresswoman, I agree that we need to work on diversity,” Zuckerberg responded. “In this specific case, I don’t think that this was the issue because we were frankly slow to identifying the whole Russian misinformation operation and not just that specific example.”
This wasn’t the first time Black lawmakers had engaged Facebook about the lack of diversity in its organization and how that may have contributed to major missteps in the company’s reaction to digital tampering. During a November 2017 House Intelligence Committee hearing, Rep. Terri Sewell (D-Ala.) spent more than several minutes on the same issue with Facebook general counsel Colin Stretch, citing a fake Russian-made Facebook page known as “Blacktivist” that accumulated nearly 30,000 shares. “Who are your vetters and are they a diverse group of people?”
Black activists and observers in the advocacy space are neither surprised by the points raised by CBC members nor are they confident such manipulation will stop. “It comes as no surprise that the privilege and powerful as well as the bigoted will use whatever means available to influence opinion and behavior,” says Asa Khalif of Black Lives Matter Pennsylvania. “Facebook is just a newer more sophisticated method.” Of one of the more glaring examples of Facebook’s inability to forcefully shut down Russian hackers, warnings from real founders and leaders of the national Black Lives Matter movement about a fake BLM page went unheeded by internal Facebook staff.
Would that response have been different if there were Black developers and representatives watching? Concerns over the paucity of Black presence at Facebook and throughout the vast majority of the technology sector have been raised before. The past several years have seen increased interest in the subject, with think tanks and advocacy organizations markedly louder on the topic with numerous reports, forums and formal protests.
The CBC itself, as recently as last year, convened a delegation of legislators and experts to Silicon Valley urging industry leaders to not only employ more Black talent, but to also include more Black expertise in their executive leadership teams (also known as “C-suites”).
However, innovation sector leaders have claimed that’s not an easy proposition. Most explain that there just aren’t enough skilled Black and Brown workers in the field to recruit or that are available in the oft referenced “pipeline.”
Yet, according to a 2017 Kapor Center for Social Impact, African Americans fill 9 percent of all occupations requiring computing and mathematical skill sets, despite being 12 percent of the overall U.S. workforce. There is also growing interest from Black and Latinx college students in the so-called STEM field: they account for a combined 20 percent of computer and data science-related undergraduate degrees, and the same for Masters.
Still, Facebook isn’t the only organization with so few Black faces. At Twitter and Google, Black and Brown engineers are barely one and two percent of employees. A recent report by Ascend notes Black men and Black woman technology professionals in the San Francisco Bay Area (the leading geographical incubator of the industry) are 78 percent and 58 percent, respectively, “below parity” with their white counterparts.
Such data have alarmed many observers. Critics question whether technology sector companies are truly able to address an infinite range of sensitive and polarizing racial discourse, data and intelligence being manipulated by a number of bad political actors.
And: can a company like Facebook, which has become a primary communication tool for more than 60 percent of the U.S. population, protect its Black users from abuse? Facebook is the most widely used social media tool by Black digital consumers; 70 percent of Black social media users are on Facebook compared to only 67 percent of white users.
“Having a diverse workforce would’ve helped Facebook identify and correct the biases infiltrating their system,” argues Dr. Nicol Turner-Lee, a senior fellow in Governance Studies at the Brookings Institution, as well as a member of the global think tank’s Race Prosperity and Inclusion Initiative. “As certain groups are targeted for hate speech or online voter suppression on the Facebook platform, it’s important that the company employ diversity in design and even conduct civil rights audits to protect them against further exploitation.”
Khalif is one of many Philadelphia-area movement organizers who rely heavily on social media and technology to not only increase awareness, but to also mobilize users into action. Still, he’s not worried that it will force advocates to shift tactics or pivot in a way that hinders those movements. “Black activist have always changed the way we delivered our message,” Khalif said. “It was the key to our survival. Fake pages are nothing new. The civil rights activists 50 years ago had the FBI which was the Facebook back in the day. So, nothing new under the sun.”
Still, Philly-based Tayyib Smith, co-Founder of startup Little Giant Creative and the Institute of Hip Hop Entrepreneurship warns that we lack of diversity in the innovation sector is much more pernicious than just social media. The industry’s unwillingness to diversify means there are fewer to no people of color developing software or technology used excessively by governing institutions.
Smith points to criminal justice as one troubling area. “Software applications used by law enforcement such as the Corr criminal Offender Management Profiling for Alternative Sanctions (COMPAS) rate Black targets a 10, the highest risk for recidivism, while rating white targets a three.”
“Because of this technology, Black defendants are twice as likely to be flagged as high-risk.”