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Muslim Advocates Has Filed A Lawsuit Against Facebook

AILSA CHANG, HOST:

A Muslim civil rights group is suing Facebook. The lawsuit claims the company has not done enough to stop the spread of anti-Muslim hate. As NPR's Bobby Allyn reports, it is the latest confrontation between the world's largest social network and rights advocates over online hate speech. Facebook, we should note, is an NPR funder.

BOBBY ALLYN, BYLINE: After years of meeting with Facebook, Muslim Advocates were fed up - numerous phone calls and meetings, including with Facebook executives Mark Zuckerberg and Sheryl Sandberg. Nothing, they thought, was getting Facebook to take anti-Muslim hate seriously. So now they have filed a lawsuit in the District of Columbia. It alleges that Facebook has exaggerated how aggressively it removes hate speech. Mary Bauer is a lawyer with the group.

MARY BAUER: What we're saying in this lawsuit to Facebook is, do one of two things. Stop lying, or have your actions conform to your statements.

ALLYN: She says Muslim Advocates presented to the company more than 200 instances of Facebook groups that spouted hate. Many of them didn't try to hide it, with names like Anti-Islamic Union and Patriots Against Islam. Facebook took down about half of the groups. The others are still up.

BAUER: This is not the, you know, oh, a couple things are falling through the cracks. This is pervasive content. Facebook has made a decision not to take this material down.

ALLYN: In response to the lawsuit, Facebook released a statement. It says hate speech is banned on the platform and that the company tries to make sure the social network is safe for all groups, including Muslims. But Julia DeCook, a professor at Loyola University Chicago, says messages that strike a nerve tend to keep people on social media platforms, and that's good for their bottom lines.

JULIA DECOOK: The platforms have no basic monetary motivation to actually implement these changes because, frankly speaking, hate speech is profitable for them.

ALLYN: Facebook says it has in recent years gotten better control of bigotry and hate. For example, it took down more than 6 million instances of organized hate between October and December. But DeCook, who studies online extremism, says Facebook's own numbers are aimed at fending off regulators.

DECOOK: So it's more about image management and less about, like, actually living up to these values that they claim to espouse.

ALLYN: The Muslim Advocates suit comes after years of pressure from other civil rights organizations, like the Anti-Defamation League, the NAACP and Latino groups, all concerned that Facebook isn't enforcing its policies to safeguard minorities. DeCook says if a $800 billion company can't take down egregious examples of hate, what about the dangerous material that is better disguised? The lawsuit cites a hate group called Purge Worldwide that changed its name to Pure Worldwide.

DECOOK: People have kind of gotten, like, smart to the fact that content moderation focuses on what's the most obvious and not necessarily what's kind of the most pernicious and insidious parts of spreading hate speech and misinformation on the platform.

ALLYN: Muslim Advocates are asking the court to make Facebook run ads admitting it misrepresented how aggressively it handles anti-Muslim content. Bobby Allyn, NPR News, San Francisco.

(SOUNDBITE OF MUSIC) Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.