Shareholders Press Twitter, Facebook to Curb Sexual Harassment

Chris Ratcliffe/Bloomberg
  • Arjuna Capital, New York State focus on social-media abuse
  • Resolution asks for detailed reports on harassment, remedies

By Selina Wang

Facebook Inc. and Twitter Inc., under fire from lawmakers for Russian manipulation of their social media sites, are now facing heat from shareholders, who say the companies need to do more to combat sexual harassment of women on their platforms.

Arjuna Capital and the New York State Common Retirement Fund announced Thursday they had co-filed shareholder resolutions asking both companies to produce a “detailed report on the scope of sexual harassment on their platforms and the remedies either in place or already contemplated for the future.” The resolutions, aimed at the companies’ annual shareholder meetings later this year, also address the topics of fake news, election interference, violence and hate speech.

“Sexual harassment online is a threat to women and a danger to long-term shareholder value,” said Natasha Lamb, managing partner at Arjuna Capital. “If users feel unsafe on the platform, they simply won’t use it.”

The latest shareholder proposal adds to the growing backlash toward the social media giants. Last year, lawmakers grilled Facebook, Twitter and Alphabet Inc.’s Google for failing to stop Russian attempts to use the companies’ sites to influence the U.S. 2016 presidential elections. Now, amid sexual harassment allegations across industries, shareholders are increasing scrutiny on the role that social media may play in abuse of women.

Historically, Twitter viewed its platform as a place for free speech and unfiltered conversation. That has shifted as examples of abusive behavior on the platform have turned people away. In 2016, the company formed a Trust and Safety Council and made significant product updates to help curb abuse.

Twitter came under intense scrutiny last year for temporarily disabling the account of actress and director Rose McGowan, who used the platform to name alleged offenders in the entertainment industry following sexual-assault allegations against Hollywood producer Harvey Weinstein. Twitter at the time said her account was temporarily locked for posting a private phone number. Women boycotted the site for a day to protest, and some complained that Twitter’s swift action in suspending McGowan’s account contrasted with the company’s usual ambivalence in policing users who troll women with sexual and violent content.

“The current controversy around sexual harassment, hate speech and fake news has already inflicted considerable reputational damage to these companies and has the potential to affect long-term shareholder values as users come to feel that these social platforms are not safe,” said Patrick Doherty, co-director, corporate governance for New York State Comptroller Thomas DiNapoli, a trustee of state Common Retirement Fund.

The New York fund holds about 1.48 million shares in Twitter worth more than $35 million at the company’s current share price, according to quarterly filing data compiled by Bloomberg. It holds about 6.86 million shares in Facebook that are valued at about $1.29 billion.

Spokesman for Twitter and Facebook declined to comment on the proposed resolution.

This isn’t the first time that shareholders have pushed for transparency. In October, a group of investors led by Arjuna Capital and the Illinois State Treasurer filed proposals with Twitter, Facebook and Google to ask for reports about the Russian manipulation on their platforms during the 2016 election and dissemination of fake news. Arjuna filed a similar proposal to Facebook and Google in February, requesting disclosure on how they block posts, ads or spamming from fake news sites.