Black Lawmakers Grievance With Facebook, Racial Exploitation

For more than an hour, Sheryl Sandberg, Facebook’s high-profile chief operating officer, sheepishly pledged to “do better” — over and over — as stern-faced members of the Congressional Black Caucus grilled her on Thursday about Russian ads aimed at exploiting racial divisions during last year’s election.

For black lawmakers, it was a chance to vent — at the outrage they felt toward Russian intelligence and its efforts to foment racial unrest in the country; at the frustration they felt toward three separate congressional investigations into Russian interference that have plodded on and yielded little; and at Facebook itself, which has been long on promises and short on action.

“She was checking the boxes. She said all the right things,” Representative Donald M. Payne Jr., Democrat of New Jersey, said of Ms. Sandberg. But he was not satisfied. “I had an uncle who hated when you said ‘gonna’: ‘I’m gonna do this, and I’m gonna do that.’ He used to say, ‘Don’t be a gonna.’ And that’s what I said to her, ‘Don’t be a gonna.’”

Facebook’s chief executive, Mark Zuckerberg, after initially denying that Russians had exploited the company’s system, has reversed course and admitted that groups backed by President Vladimir V. Putin of Russia paid Facebook to influence voters last year with ads designed to inflame and exploit racial, political and economic rifts in the United States. Russian-backed Facebook pages promoted anti-immigrant rallies, targeted the Black Lives Matter movement and focused attentions on critical election swing states like Wisconsin and Michigan.

While Facebook has yet to release any of the ads, it has hired three crisis communications firms, bought digital and newspaper ads and sent Ms. Sandberg to Washington last week to charm Congress and the public.

But the grievance of black lawmakers is a particular one: As black activists tried last year to focus attention on police brutality, unfair treatment before the law, inequality and white supremacy, social media giants like Facebook were being commandeered by Russian intelligence agents to turn white voters against them.

For Representative Barbara Lee, Democrat of California, the moment recalled the 1970s, when another government, this one in Washington, not Moscow, targeted black activists. She served as a community worker for the Black Panther Party as the F.B.I. used false information to go after its members.

“That actually got people killed and destroyed organizations,” Ms. Lee said. “Now look at Facebook allowing ads by the Russian government to create this kind of environment. That’s a problem. I don’t know if they’re even aware of the history and how dangerous allowing the promotion of division and racial animosity and racial hatred can be.”

And nearly a year after the election, black lawmakers say, little is being done to reverse the damage. Russia studied and exploited the “fault lines of racial tension,” said Representative Yvette D. Clarke, Democrat of New York, and multiple investigations into Russia’s actions and the Trump’s campaign possible involvement have thus far offered no safeguards to stop Moscow’s efforts.

“Things are moving far too slow because we should be putting protective measures in place,” Ms. Clarke said. “We need to step up to the challenge.”

During the meeting, Ms. Sandberg frequently said she agreed as more than a dozen members of the Congressional Black Caucus demanded action from the company. Several people in the meeting said Ms. Sandberg frequently said, “We will do better” and “You will get answers.”

But her answers fueled the anger of some black lawmakers who said for years that they have been pushing Facebook to add a black person to its all-white board of directors and to diversify its staff. Several members have also written letters to Facebook and other companies demanding answers related to the presidential election.

On Thursday, the company’s chief diversity officer, Maxine Williams, said in the meeting that Facebook had recently hired a record number of minority employees, and Ms. Sandberg promised that the company planned to add a black person to its board.

The issue of Russia exploiting already charged race relations in the United States hits especially home for many members of the Congressional Black Caucus, including Representative Emanuel Cleaver II, Democrat of Missouri, who explained to Ms. Sandberg on Thursday that a man had attempted to bomb his office in 2014 in Kansas City based on false information and conspiracy theories. Mr. Cleaver, a cousin of Eldridge Cleaver, an early leader of the Black Panthers, said after the meeting that he was constantly on guard because many detractors falsely believe that his family member killed police officers.

“People get all worked up on the internet and do crazy things, and some of us are the recipients of their insanity,” Mr. Cleaver said. “It feels like the whole country is changing, and we’re having a national nervous breakdown.”

For others, the anger is more with Moscow than Silicon Valley. Already, they say, the United States has to deal with the remnants of slavery, institutional racism in schools and the criminal justice system, and now a foreign adversary is stirring a boiling pot.

Shortly after the meeting with Ms. Sandberg, Representative Cedric L. Richmond, Democrat of Louisiana and the chairman of the Congressional Black Caucus, said he was concerned that the F.B.I. may have bought into Russia’s exploitation of African-Americans with its new class of threats called “Black Identity Extremists.” Mr. Richmond said he feared that the F.B.I. may now go after black people who protest unfair policing practices and discriminatory policies based on false information peddled on social media.

“This is a very fragile moment in time for African-Americans across this country,” Mr. Richmond said. “What we needed Facebook to understand is that they play a role in the perception of African-Americans.”

Representative Robin Kelly, a Democrat of Illinois, said she often hears from constituents who want to know why the investigations have taken so long. Ms. Kelly is also the ranking Democrat on the House Oversight Committee’s Subcommittee on Information Technology and sits on the Foreign Affairs Committee’s Subcommittee on Europe, Eurasia and Emerging Threats. Neither panel has had a hearing on Russia’s role in the 2016 presidential election, she said.

“I don’t know the intelligence process, and I’m sure they want to be thorough and all of that,” she said. But, she added, “people are anxious.”

At least some members of the caucus have started thinking about what ways Congress may have to step in and shield Americans from Russia’s influence.

Representative Bonnie Watson Coleman, Democrat of New Jersey, said lawmakers may need to come up with new ways to combat false information and fight back against Russia. That might mean Facebook would face new regulations.

“Our concerns will not get ignored,” Ms. Watson Coleman said. “It’s either you clean up your act, or government will have to act in that space.”

By YAMICHE ALCINDOR

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