Facebook came to the Capitol this week to talk about Moscow’s election meddling. But the Congressional Black Caucus wanted to confront the company over some deeper issues: its lily-white board and amplification of Russian ads that capitalized on Black Lives Matter.
CBC members aired those beefs during a lengthy Thursday meeting with Facebook Chief Operating Officer Sheryl Sandberg, who pledged to do more to diversify the social media giant. But as Facebook walks a political tightrope over thousands of ads it unwittingly ran at the behest of a Russian troll farm — some of which stoked racial divisions over Black Lives Matter and illegal immigration — some CBC members were not entirely mollified.
Rep. Jim Clyburn of South Carolina, No. 3 in House Democratic leadership, gave an impassioned speech about what he described as Facebook’s complicity in helping President Donald Trump win the White House, lawmakers said afterward.
Clyburn was with Sandberg’s response, though he wouldn’t say how she replied.
“You can ask her about the response,” the South Carolina Democrat told POLITICO.
CBC members have long pushed Facebook and other tech titans to add more executives of color to their ranks, only to say they feel rebuffed or ignored by Silicon Valley. In the wake of Facebook’s admission that it unwittingly accepted the inflammatory Russian ads, black lawmakers tried to impress upon Sandberg the effect that her company’s platform has on public sentiment about social justice campaigns like Black Lives Matter.
"This is a very fragile moment in time for African-Americans across this country,” Rep. Cedric Richmond (D-La.), chairman of the CBC, told reporters. "What we needed Facebook to understand is that they play a role in the perception of African-Americans, and they are influencers that use their platform to influence this country."
The issue is deeply personal for the CBC, particularly its older members. Some members got choked up during this week’s black caucus luncheon as they spoke of what they described as similarities between the current political environment and the civil rights era. Lawmakers were chagrined by the white supremacist rally in Charlottesville, Virginia, in August, and more recently by the Trump-led flap over NFL players kneeling during the national anthem.
Though Sandberg didn’t directly address questions about whether Russian entities structured their social media ads to benefit Trump, Richmond had a slightly more conciliatory reaction than Clyburn to her wait-and-see approach.
“I’m the political expert — she’s not,” Richmond said, adding that Sandberg said "they are waiting to look at the data and get expert analysis" about whether the ads influenced Trump’s election.
CBC members spent much of the meeting pressing Sandberg on the company’s all-white board of directors and the dearth of minorities in its corporate ranks. The issue is particularly raw for the CBC, Richmond said, given that members met with Facebook leaders two years ago on its diversity problems and little, if any, progress has been made.
CBC lawmakers said they think the Russian ads promoting Black Lives Matter would have been easily flagged, and likely not seen by as many as 10 million people, had Facebook employed more people of color. Sandberg committed to adding a person of color to the board of directors soon, Richmond told reporters.
A Facebook spokesman declined to comment further on the substance of Sandberg’s CBC meeting.
Sandberg also met with the leaders of the Congressional Hispanic Caucus on Thursday after committing to help lawmakers investigating Russian disruption who want to release Kremlin-linked ads that ran both before and after the 2016 election.
A source briefed on Sandberg’s CHC meeting said that it touched on Russian meddling, which U.S. intelligence officials say was orchestrated to benefit Trump’s campaign, as well as corporate diversity, aid to Puerto Rico, and helping the estimated 700,000 undocumented immigrants known as Dreamers whose status in the country is in limbo.
Facebook CEO Mark Zuckerberg has protested Trump’s plans to end temporary protections for Dreamers, and Sandberg told CHC leaders that Facebook considers protecting Dreamers a top priority for the company.
After her meeting with the black caucus, however, members left describing the tough conversation as just beginning.
Rep. Bonnie Watson Coleman (D-N.J.) joined two other CBC members in penning a letter to Facebook this month about its lack of diversity. She said Sandberg "understands, and the company understands, that there are serious questions about their involvement on a number of levels," including the Russian ads’ effect on the election and on the intensification of social divisions.
Facebook, Twitter and Google are expected to testify publicly about Russian electoral disruption before both the House and Senate intelligence committees on Nov. 1. The House panel’s bipartisan leaders have said they expect to release at least some of the Kremlin-connected ads by the time of that hearing. Even before that appearance, however, the tone of Sandberg’s meetings on Capitol Hill this week suggest that the company’s public relations problems are far from over.
“Facebook is proudly an American company,” Rep. Andre Carson (D-Ind.) said. “And whenever you have entity like the Russians who are purchasing ads in rubles or dollars through fake accounts, sowing seeds of racial tension and animosity and anti-immigrant sentiment and Islamophobia, we should all be concerned.”
Of particular concern to CBC members is an FBI intelligence report from August, leaked last week, that predicts "premeditated attacks against law enforcement over the next year" in the wake of increasing anti-police sentiment fostered by "black identity extremists."
Carson said he would push for a hearing on the report, which black lawmakers consider reminiscent of the civil rights-era FBI’s clandestine surveillance campaign against black community leaders. Richmond drew a line from the Russian ads’ invocation of police violence against African-Americans to the controversial FBI findings.
"We need to make sure that we’re not allowing people to use a platform like Facebook, Twitter, Google or any of the other ones to create that perception and then you have the FBI buying in [to] that," Richmond said.