Big Technology

Should We Trust The Facebook Oversight Board?

Some call it a scam. Others say it’s the best available option. Either way, the Facebook Oversight Board is about to decide whether Trump can use Facebook.

Hakan Nural/Anadolu Agency via Getty Images

Over the next few weeks, the biggest tech story will be the Facebook Oversight Board’s ruling on Donald Trump. Facebook suspended Trump indefinitely following the Capitol Riots earlier this year. And now the board — a 19-member body that can review and overturn Facebook’s content decisions — is about to decide whether to bring him back.

As we enter a frenzied news cycle over the board’s decision, the key question underlying it all will be whether we can trust this new entity, which Facebook set up last year.

Some call the board a necessary, Supreme Court-style institution that brings the public into Facebook’s decision-making process. Others say it gives us a false sense of representation in an inherently undemocratic content operation. “I can’t believe anyone takes it seriously,” Matt Stoller, director of research at the American Economic Liberties Project, told me. “It’s idiotic.”

Let’s briefly walk through the arguments for and against the board.

Side A: The Facebook Oversight Board Is a Scam

Critics of the board say it’s not actually independent, and its remit is so limited it distracts from Facebook’s real problems.

Though the board is authorized to review Facebook’s content moderation decisions, overturn them, and has final say, critics argue it still operates within a framework that Facebook set up. Facebook handpicked the board’s members, who make decisions using Facebook’s content guidelines, and Facebook pays their salaries via a trust. So it would be a bit of a stretch to call the board completely independent.

The board also has limited authority. It can only review a small number of cases each year, and its ability to go beyond simple content moderation decisions is limited. The board, for instance, can’t remove or reinstate groups, it can’t review Facebook’s recommendation algorithms, and it can’t influence how Facebook builds its product. It addresses the outputs, not the machine. “It needs a much broader remit if it’s going to do proper oversight, Evelyn Douek, a Harvard lecturer who’s studying the board, told me.

Though the board is authorized to review Facebook’s content moderation decisions, overturn them, and has final say, critics argue it still operates within a framework that Facebook set up.

With that in mind, critics say the board is a head-fake. They claim Facebook created it to offload responsibility for the behavior on its service. And they say Facebook is using it to convince Congress to preserve Section 230 of the CDA, which protects it from liability for what people post on its service. The Oversight Board pays its members’ six-figure annual salaries for 15 hours of work per week. And some say the money helps Facebook show Congress an esteemed group of intellectuals making content decisions on its service. “It’s an embarrassing way for Facebook to pay a bunch of corrupt fancy academics to lobby for Facebook,” Stoller said.

Side B: The Facebook Oversight Board Is Good

The argument in favor of the Facebook Oversight Board is simple: What’s the alternative?

Facebook is a massive platform that makes 2 million content moderation decisions each day. For years, people have questioned whether one company should have all that power. But Facebook has the power now. And somebody has to make content decisions. Otherwise, you get 8chan.

Three potential entities can make content moderation decisions on Facebook: The company itself, the government, and the public. The first two options are poor choices. If Facebook makes its own content moderation decisions, that leaves us with the original problem: an unaccountable company controlling a good chunk of speech on the internet. The government would be an even worse choice, which is why the U.S. has the First Amendment. So, some form of a public body, however flawed, seems like the least bad option here. The Oversight Board, proponents say, fills that role.

Somebody has to make content decisions. Otherwise, you get 8chan.

“I’ve been in a small, very small, increasingly small group of people that is cautiously optimistic about this,” Douek said. “Is it the ideal solution? No. But ‘Compared to what?’ has got to be the relevant question.”

Bottom Line: Like everything related to social media content moderation, the Facebook Oversight Board is messy. In the coming weeks, some people will hold it up as the gold standard, others will attempt to discredit it, others still will wish it never came into existence. But it’s here now, and it’s worth thinking about with a level of nuance often missing from our current discourse.

Further reading

Inside the Making of Facebook’s Supreme Court (The New Yorker)

Who Criticizes the Tech Critics? A Meta Talk With ‘Real Facebook Oversight Board’ Members Carole Cadwalladr and Yael Eisenstat (Big Technology Podcast transcript)

News Briefs

People seemed to like this section last week, so let’s keep it up? Here are my two favorite stories from the week:

I Thought My Job Was To Report On Technology In India. Instead, I Got A Front-Row Seat To The Decline Of My Democracy. (BuzzFeed News)

Pranav Dixit, a BuzzFeed News reporter and recent Big Technology Podcast guest, wrote a stunning letter from New Delhi about how the Indian government enforces its will on tech companies there. Dixit explains how his government has put major content restrictions in place, describing how it feels on the ground. “When I talk to rank-and-file employees at these companies,” he wrote, “they seem on edge. There’s a lot of nervous laughter. Some people stammer and trip over their sentences. ‘I don’t know if I should talk about that,’ someone says.”

BidenBucks Is Beeple Is Bitcoin (New York Magazine)

In a lengthy Q&A, Scott Galloway breaks down the madness of today’s economy. I read this in one sitting and found myself nodding along through most. Galloway unpacks the GameStop revolt, the rise of NFTs, and the government’s stimulus program with a fresh, easy-to-understand perspective. It’s one of the rare times I’ve walked away from a piece and felt like I had answers to a lot of questions rattling around in my brain.

This week on Big Technology Podcast: How Amazon Automated My Job, a Conversation With Elaine Kwon

Elaine Kwon was a vendor manager in Amazon’s retail organization when the company started to turn her tasks over to machine learning in a program called “Hands Off The Wheel.” She joins Big Technology Podcast to discuss how and why Amazon rolled out the program, how she and her fellow vendor managers reacted, and what it portends for the rest of us.

To subscribe to the podcast and hear the interview for yourself, you can check it out on Apple, Spotify, or wherever you get your podcasts.

Let’s chat

I’d love to hear from you. Please send your tips, questions, etc., Have a nice weekend, and I’ll see you next Thursday.

I write the Big Technology newsletter. Sign up here: https://bigtechnology.substack.com.

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