How a fake “Real Oversight Board” is putting pressure on Facebook

Technology

Today let’s talk about Facebook’s Oversight Board, the “real” Oversight Board, and what it means for the 2020 election.

Last week I wrote about how Facebook’s vast size and monarchic corporate structure had contributed to a steady stream of controversies all summer. When every decision on which posts to remove comes down to the judgment of one person, that person will be subject to enormous pressure to take one side or another. Facebook’s proposed solution to this is the Oversight Board, an independent group that will serve as a kind of Supreme Court for content moderation.

When it’s up and running, the board will hear appeals from users who believe their posts have been removed in error, and will either uphold Facebook’s original call or reverse it. Inevitably, the board will take some actions that Facebook itself disagrees with, and from that tension the board will derive its legitimacy.

The board has several limitations, which we’ve covered here before, but the most urgent one at the moment is this: it’s still not operating. The board named its members in May, raising hopes that it would be hearing cases by now. But in July, the board said it would not be operational before the election. That created much frustration among critics who argue that during such a critical election Facebook could use more oversight.

But it seems that we’ll be having some oversight after all. Here’s Olivia Solon at NBC News:

A group of about 25 experts from academia, civil rights, politics and journalism announced Friday that they have formed a group to analyze and critique Facebook’s content moderation decisions, policies and other platform issues in the run-up to the presidential election and beyond.

The group, which calls itself the Real Facebook Oversight Board, plans to hold its first meeting via Facebook Live on Oct. 1. It will be hosted by Recode founder Kara Swisher, a New York Times contributing opinion writer.

My first reaction to the Real Oversight Board was a dismayed skepticism. For a group of experts who are so vocally concerned about misinformation to declare themselves something they’re not — a real oversight board — feels like a misstep. And given how vocal many of the group’s members already are in their Facebook criticisms — mostly on Twitter — I question what a weekly Zoom call is going to add to the mix. (As a Facebook spokesman told Solon, fairly I think, “This new effort is mostly longtime critics creating a new channel for existing criticisms.”)

My second reaction, though, was that I like art projects, and the Real Oversight Board seems to qualify as one. “We will use stunts, viral video, celebrity endorsement and skillful media management to throw a spotlight on the real-time threats to democracy from the misuse of social media platforms and big tech,” the group told Axios. It gets a little more self-aggrandizing from there — “Democracy needs its own PR team and creative agency. We are it” — but the basic point stands. If Facebook’s Oversight Board won’t provide oversight before the election, someone else will.

One reason that I like art projects — particularly of the corporation-embarrassing variety — is that sometimes they can have an outsized effect. And, sure enough, two days before the Real Oversight Board’s coming-out party — but after Facebook was aware of its intentions — the company reversed itself. (A board spokesman said the timing of the announcements was not connected.) Here’s Hannah Murphy at the Financial Times:

Facebook will launch its ‘Supreme Court’-style oversight body ahead of the US election, according to two people familiar with its plans, after facing rising criticism for its perceived failure to tackle hateful and divisive content.

The independent oversight board, which will rule on what is allowed on Facebook’s platforms and whether its policies are fair, will start accepting cases from mid to late October, the people said.

So what effect will any of this have?

The actual real Oversight Board — the one whose decisions will compel Facebook to act — is primarily focused on which controversial posts it ought to leave up. Initially, it plans to hear appeals only from users whose posts were removed. If your beef is that the president uses Facebook to say, falsely, that mail-in ballots “cannot be accurately counted,” as he did today, then the Oversight Board won’t help you. The reason is that the board was conceived, first and foremost, as a defender of speech rather than election integrity.

Facebook could ask the board to give it an opinion on a takedown issue, but these requests will be in the small minority of cases submitted to the body. Given that misinformation from the president is perhaps the defining story of the 2020 election, all of this feels like (sorry) an oversight.

“Many groups have strong opinions on how Facebook should moderate content, and we welcome new efforts to encourage debate,” a spokesman for the Oversight Board told me. “The members of the Oversight Board are focused on building an institution that will make binding decisions on Facebook’s most significant content issues.”

Meanwhile, the fake Real Oversight Board tells me that it plans to pick up where the actual real Oversight Board leaves off.

“It’s been misreported as being about ‘content moderation,’ but it’s about addressing the whole thing: ads, algorithmic amplification, group recommendations, etc.,” a spokesperson told me. “The OB is focussing solely on stuff that’s been taken down at launch. Our chief concern at this time is on what’s up.” Thursday’s Zoom call will be a “curtain raiser” that walks through some of the more disturbing scenarios we may see in the run-up to, and aftermath, of the November 3rd election, the spokesperson said.

I continue to believe in the Oversight Board as a check on Facebook’s power — we’ve truly never seen its like before. But it’s also clear that its initial shape is ill-suited to the most pressing concerns of the moment. A lesson of the 2020 campaign so far is that Facebook struggles to remove harmful speech even when it makes a policy of doing so. It feels like an odd time to unveil your big effort to restore posts that were taken down in error, no matter how unjust their removal may have been.