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Laurie Clarke


The ‘real’ oversight board: ‘It’s about increasing pressure on Facebook to act’

In November 2018, Facebook announced plans to launch an independent oversight board, billed as a ‘supreme court’ for content decisions. Once it’s launched, the organisation will review user-submitted appeals about posts that were taken down or left up. But an insurgent group, self-styled as the ‘real Facebook oversight board’, appears eager to upstage this effort.

The provocatively titled group brings together members of the Stop Hate For Profit campaign, which lobbied Facebook to step up regulatory action on hate speech over summer, including the NAACP, Color of Change, the Anti-Defamation League (ADL) and Free Press. A number of companies participated in the campaign, suspending advertising for the month of July to ratchet up the pressure on Facebook. Other board members hail from academia, journalism and politics.

It’s spearheaded by The Citizens, an advocacy group that was founded by Observer journalist Carole Cadwalladr, the reporter who blew the lid off the Cambridge Analytica scandal in 2018 and has been a vocal critic of Facebook since. The group receives funding from Luminate, an investment firm set up by eBay founder Pierre Omidyar’s philanthropic Omidyar Group network.

When news of the Real Oversight Board reached Mark Zuckerberg, he reportedly contacted Luminate to express his disappointment.

The group convened for its first press conference yesterday evening (available to watch on YouTube here), to provide more details about its purpose and what it hopes to gain.

Board members expressed mixed opinions on the official Facebook oversight board. President of Color of Change Rashad Robinson denounced it as a “PR vehicle” and “weak and insufficient”. Tory MP and former Digital, Culture, Media and Sport Committee chair, Damian Collins, added that he was amused by the dismissal of the “Real” group by the established Facebook committee, “because it sort of implies that the actual Facebook [Oversight Board] is a group of people that are well disposed towards the company and favourable”. “They should be faced with critics on that board as well, if it meant anything, if it had any teeth, but it’s a company that doesn’t really want to accept criticism internally or externally,” he continued.

Cadwalladr commended the “really impressive experts and academics” on the Facebook’s oversight board, saying, “we wish them all the luck in the world and we cheer them on, and we really hope that they can do something in the longer term to hold Facebook to account. But they are not going to be holding them to account right now, at this critical time.” She said the purpose of convening an alternative group now “is meant as […] an emergency response in this moment, given the risks that these people have been shouting about, and they’re not being heard”.

As an example of Facebook’s failures on content control, the group mentioned the Kenosha Guard militia group’s event page, which called for armed people to attend protests the night that Kyle Rittenhouse murdered two people. A number of people reported the group’s page, but were told it didn’t violate Facebook’s policies. Later, Zuckerberg termed this an “operational mistake”.

“White supremacy groups convene on this platform, they recruit on this platform, and they’ve used this platform to create avenues of harm towards people based on their race, their religious belief, their ethnic background – that should not be tolerated,” said president of the NAACP Derrick Johnson. He said that he’d had multiple conversations with Zuckerberg and Facebook executives, but hadn’t seen a substantive change in moderation strategies.

Shoshana Zuboff, Harvard professor and author of The Age of Surveillance Capitalism said it’s “fundamentally illegitimate for Facebook as a corporation to be constructing and funding its own oversight board”. “That can only happen in a world where we have a void in the rule of law, that we do not yet have the legal frameworks and institutions in place that should provide the oversight that this highly consequential corporation requires,” she said.

A great area of concern for the board is that Facebook will be weaponised to undermine the US presidential election taking place on 3 November, with calls for the social media platform to take steps to “protect democracy”.

Jonathan Greenblatt, CEO of the ADL, outlined three of the group’s demands: “Number one, Facebook must enforce its own policies to actually remove posts inciting violence, whether those come from ordinary citizens, public figures, or elected officials, including the president of the United States, Donald Trump.”

In the past, platforms such as Facebook and Twitter have said that posts from high-profile people are preserved even if they contravene the rules for the sake of public interest.

Greenblatt continued: “Number two, Facebook must ban all paid advertising that mentions presidential election results until one candidate clearly and empirically is declared president elect, and the other candidate on the record concedes.

“Third, and finally, Facebook must label all organic posts about presidential election results as untrue and premature until one candidate is declared president elect and the other candidate concedes.”

Around the same time the press conference was taking place, Facebook announced the decision to ban ads that seek to delegitimise elections.

Zuboff said that in the near-term, the ‘real Facebook oversight board’s’ aim is to “make a lot of noise” and continuously monitor Facebook’s content decisions. She said a longer term goal was to create new forms of collective action and provide channels for more peoples’ voices.

Facebook has now announced the imminent launch of the official Facebook oversight board – a move that Cadwalladr alleged was expedited by the news of the challenger group. The official group is expected to start reviewing content decisions in October.