Facebook’s oversight board unveils its first slate of cases


Facebook CEO Mark Zuckerberg testifies in October 2019.

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Facebook’s content oversight board on Tuesday chose its first slate of cases for review, selecting six from more than 20,000 brought to the independent body since it opened its doors in late October.

Three of the cases involve hate speech, which the social network restricts as part of its community guidelines. Five of the cases were brought by users, while one was brought by the company itself.

The cases include reposted tweets by a former Malaysian prime minister that could be interpreted as suggesting violence against French people, a protest of China’s treatment of Uyghur Muslims, and a post regarding breast cancer that included images the social network considered explicit. The case brought by Facebook involves the use of hydroxychloroquine, an unproven treatment for COVID-19.

“We are prioritizing cases that have the potential to affect lots of users around the world, are of critical importance to public discourse or raise important questions about Facebook’s policies,” the board said in a statement. Each case is open for public comment until Dec. 8.

The selection of the cases marks a milestone for the oversight board, which was two years in the making. The board can uphold or overturn Facebook’s decisions, and the social network will be bound by its decisions. The company built a new system, called a case management tool, that allows the board members, who are located around the world, to track appeals while preserving the security of personally identifiable user information. The 20-member board, made up of former judges, lawyers and journalists, has up to 90 days to reach a decision on most cases. Expedited cases will be completed within 30 days.  

Read more: Here’s how you can submit an appeal to Facebook’s new oversight board.

Getting to launch has been a time-consuming process. Facebook CEO Mark Zuckerberg first publicly suggested the concept in November 2018. Members were named a year and a half later. 

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Facebook getting an oversight board


Critics of Facebook, which was used by Russia in an influence campaign during the 2016 presidential election, say it isn’t taking its responsibility seriously enough. Social media companies, including Facebook, have already come under scrutiny for interfering with the spread of some information, most recently an unverified New York Post story about President-elect Joe Biden’s son. 

One group of vocal critics, which calls itself the Real Facebook Oversight Board, has begun scrutinizing the social network’s content moderation decisions and policies. The shadow oversight board conducts its sessions in public for anyone to watch. The platform: Facebook Live.

Here’s what you need to know about Facebook’s oversight board:

Sounds like this board will have a lot of responsibility. What can it do?

Let’s get something straight: The oversight board isn’t going to do the same job as content moderators, who make decisions on whether individual posts to Facebook comply with the social network’s rules. The board exists to support the “right to free expression” of Facebook’s 2.7 billion users.  

The board functions a lot like a court, which isn’t surprising given that a Harvard law professor came up with the idea. Users who believe content moderators have removed their posts improperly can appeal to the board for a second opinion. If the board sides with the user, Facebook must restore the post. Facebook can also refer cases to the board. 

The oversight board can also make suggestions for changes to Facebook’s policies. Over time, those recommendations could affect what users are allowed to post, which could make content moderation easier. 

Why does Facebook need an oversight board in the first place? 

Facebook gets criticized by just about everybody for just about every decision it makes. Conservatives say the company — and the rest of Silicon Valley — is biased against their views. They point to bans of right-wing provocateurs Alex Jones and Milo Yiannopoulos to support their case. 

The social network doesn’t get much love from progressives, either. They complain Facebook has become a toxic swamp of racist, sexist and misleading speech. In July, some progressive groups underlined their concerns by calling on companies not to advertise on Facebook and publicizing the boycott with the hashtag #StopHateForProfit.

The oversight board can help Facebook deal with those complaints while lending credibility to the social network’s community standards, a code of conduct that prohibits hate speech, child nudity and a host of other offensive content. By letting an independent board guide decisions about this content, Facebook hopes it’ll develop a more consistent application of its rules, which in the past have generated complaints for appearing arbitrary. 

One example: Facebook’s 2016 removal of an iconic Vietnam War photo that shows a naked girl fleeing a napalm attack. The company defended the removal, saying the Pulitzer Prize winning image violated its rules on child nudity. It reversed its decision shortly afterward as global criticism mounted, prompting COO Sheryl Sandberg to apologize to Norway’s prime minister. 

Got it. But why does Facebook need to create an independent organization? 

It’s no secret that Facebook has a trust problem. Regulators, politicians and the public all question whether the decisions the company makes serve its users or itself. Making the board independent of Facebook should, the company reckons, give people confidence that its decisions are being made on the merits of the situation, not on the basis of the company’s interests. 

OK. So who has Facebook chosen to be on this board?

Earlier this year, Facebook named the first 20 members of the board, a lineup that includes former judges and current lawyers, as well as professors and journalists. It also includes a former prime minister and a Nobel Peace Prize winner. The board could eventually be expanded to 40 people.

The social network chose a diverse group. The members have lived in nearly 30 countries and speak almost as many languages. About a quarter come from the US and Canada.

At the time of the announcement, Helle Thorning-Schmidt, who served as Denmark’s prime minister from 2011 to 2015, said one of the board’s biggest advantages would be removing some of the content-moderation responsibility from Facebook itself. As it stands, she said, the decision-making is too centralized.

“Social media can spread speech that is hateful, deceitful and harmful,” she said. “And until now, some of the most difficult decisions around content have been made by Facebook, and you could say ultimately by Mark Zuckerberg.”

Serving on the board is a part-time job, with members paid through a multimillion-dollar trust. Board members will serve a three-year term. The board will have the power to select future members. It’ll hear cases in panels of five members chosen at random. 

Wait a minute. Facebook is paying the board? Is it really independent?

If you’re skeptical, we hear you. Facebook doesn’t have a great reputation for transparency.

That said, the charter establishing the board provides details of the efforts Facebook is taking to ensure the board’s independence. For example, the board isn’t a subsidiary of Facebook; it’s a separate entity with its own headquarters and staff. It maintains its own website (in 18 languages, if you count US and UK English separately) and its own Twitter account.

Still, when it comes to money, the board is indirectly funded by Facebook through the trust. Facebook is funding the trust to the tune of $130 million, which it estimates will cover years of expenses.

Facebook says it’ll abide by the board’s decisions even in cases when it disagrees with a judgment. (The social network says the only exceptions would be decisions that would force it to violate the law, an unlikely occurrence given the legal background of many board members.)

The board will also try to keep Facebook accountable, publishing an annual report that’ll include a review of Facebook’s actions as a result of its decisions. 

“It’ll be very embarrassing for Facebook,” Thorning-Schmidt said, “if they don’t live up to their end of this bargain.”

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