Would A More Diverse Facebook Help?

April 12, 2018, 7:38 PM UTC

Yesterday, Facebook CEO Mark Zuckerberg faced a second day of questioning from lawmakers looking to understand how the political consulting firm Cambridge Analytica may have gained access to the personal data of up to 87 million Facebook users.

My colleague, Jonathan Vanian, has an excellent recap here.

Compared to the relatively staid session with the Senate on Tuesday, the members of the House Energy and Commerce Committee dug more deeply into the nuts and bolts of Facebook’s data collection processes.

But one set of questions has ignited an interesting debate on why the company’s dismal diversity numbers should be part of the conversation.

Rep. G.K. Butterfield of North Carolina used his allotted time yesterday to quiz Zuckerberg on the company’s workforce.

“In 2017 you’ve increased your black representation from two to three percent,” he began, “a small increase, but better than none.” He then asked Zuckerberg to commit to publishing the company’s retention numbers disaggregated by race and if he planned to add a black executive to the company’s all-white leadership team. “Not only you and Sheryl [Sandburg], but David [Wehner], Mike [Schroepfer] and Chris [Cox],” he said, literally waving a printout of their bios and headshots in Zuckerberg’s direction. “This does not represent America,” he said.

Online chatter began immediately, with many asking a not entirely surprising question. Why is he bringing something up that had nothing to do with data privacy or Russian interference in the 2016 election?

In theory, a diverse set of employees (with influence) would be better able to identify ways their product might harm certain customers that a majority-culture leadership team might miss (or ignore) in a company’s quest for domination.

For Facebook, that can mean anything from identity theft and discrimination to the very troubling implications of the unchecked hate speech that fueled widespread violence against the Rohingya people in Myanmar.

While data breaches and unauthorized “scraping” are a bummer for everybody, those leading to financial harms are often more problematic for people of color, people living on fixed or low incomes, or people from other marginalized communities who are already operating with little financial wiggle room and sub-optimal access to banking and credit systems.

Similarly, hate speech and abuse are disproportionately directed at women, people of color, LGBTQ, Muslims, etc., on the platform, and are often not caught by content reviewers.

Civil rights leaders have warned for years that data and algorithms can make online profiling and discrimination even easier. This has been a problem for Facebook, specifically with discriminatory housing ads, as a ProPublica investigation has shown.

But the Cambridge Analytica problem also has a diversity component.

The misinformation that was used in the targeted ads was often dangerously racialized and designed to stoke the cultural divisions which are deeply embedded in America’s psyche.

The USA Today’s Jessica Guynn reported on the issue last November after Rep. Terri Sewell from Alabama questioned Facebook general counsel Colin Stretch on the company’s inability to keep Russian racist propaganda off their platform.

In one example she cited, a manipulative re-working of history aimed to inflame African American Facebook users and get them to follow a fake Russian account called Blacktivist. “Who are your vetters and are they a diverse group of people?” she asked.

So yes, theoretically diversity could have helped, but only if the “diverse” employees feel empowered, valued and safe at work – the inclusion piece of the diversity issue.

Here’s one study to post on your Facebook profile.

Two U.K. based academic researchers, Alison Reynolds and David Lewis, sought to discover why some cognitively diverse teams did better than others. Turns out, psychological safety was an important factor.

“The groups that performed well treated mistakes with curiosity and shared responsibility for the outcomes,” they write in HBR. They say psychological safety means that people understand that they won’t be punished or humiliated for surfacing ideas, questions, and concerns, or making mistakes.As a result, people could express themselves, their thoughts and ideas without fear of social retribution.”

Which is partly why Butterfield’s question about retention was such a smart one. If “minority” employees don’t feel valued at Facebook, why should anyone else feel safe on the platform?


Ellen McGirt writes Fortune’s raceAhead, a daily newsletter about race and culture.

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