The Facebook Oversight Board Is Making the Most of Its Limited Power
Whether you call it a Facebook PR scheme or the Supreme Court for social media, the Facebook Oversight Board is moving beyond its initial remit. Now things get interesting.
The hot takes have poured in following the Facebook Oversight Board’s decision on Donald Trump. On Wednesday, the “independent” board — made up of third parties selected by Facebook — announced it would uphold Facebook’s ban of the former president while asking Facebook to come up with something less arbitrary than an “indefinite” suspension. People called the board a threat to democracy, a Facebook branding campaign, an insufficient check on Facebook’s power, and something more powerful than the United Nations.
In reality, the board is a feeble institution funded and designed by Facebook — not a boogeyman upon which we should project all our fears — but it’s starting to assert itself in some very interesting ways. Facebook originally tasked the board with reviewing content moderation decisions — the least consequential of all choices Facebook makes — but it’s now moving into content policy and pressing Facebook on product design choices, which matter much more.
The board’s Trump decision captures its growing determination to expand beyond its remit. On January 7, 2021, Facebook suspended Trump indefinitely, claiming his posts condoned the Capitol riot and could lead to more violence. Facebook then referred the decision to the board, asking it to review the ban. Instead of rubber-stamping this decision or overturning it, the board came back to Facebook and essentially said, “We can’t find an indefinite suspension anywhere in your rule book, so make some rules and come back to us.” In doing so, it pointed out that some of Facebook’s most important content moderation decisions are made on the whims of its leadership, and it told the company to write better policy to prevent that from happening so often.
“In applying a vague, standardless penalty and then referring this case to the board to resolve, Facebook seeks to avoid its responsibilities,” the board wrote. “The board declines Facebook’s request and insists that Facebook apply and justify a defined…