July 9, 2020 – In a tweet yesterday, Facebook’s Oversight Board said it will not be operational until late Fall, that is mid November this year. It also added that board members will not be sharing their opinions outside of its decisions on content and policy recommendations they make to Facebook. It further adds, “Many of the issues of concern today – are within the Board’s scope and we are committed to focusing on these matters as soon as we are operational.”
The update has come at a time when the social media company is facing backlash from over 1000 businesses across the world who have suspended their advertising for the month of July on the platform as part of the global #StopHateForProfit campaign. The campaign was initiated by a number of civil rights organisations on June 17, to force the corporation to take action against hate speech that is prevalent on its platforms, including Facebook and Instagram.
The new announcement raises concerns among observers who have questioned the independence of the Oversight Board since it was announced in 2018. With the movement #BlackLivesMatter against racial injustice in the United States gaining momentum, President Donald Trump has made multiple statements and videos on his social media profiles that are racist or perpetuate racist stereotypes against Black and Brown people. Where Twitter took a clear stance of labelling the President’s tweets as against its policies with a clear disclaimer over the content, Facebook has done very little to moderate this content on its platforms that has ultimately helped legitimise racism and linked inequalities in the country and outside.
However, since the new Oversight Board’s establishment and Facebook’s communication on the Board centred around establishing its independence of the larger company, it was widely expected that the Board will take a stand on issues with content moderation that Facebook has largely failed to address or ignored. The first 20 members of the Board include lawyers, human rights defenders, journalists, academics, and politicians from 16 countries, with extensive experience working in their fields.
Sadaf Khan, Co-Founder and Director Programs of Media Matters for Democracy, says, “One would assume that with a portfolio that the Board members collectively hold will bring out a clear stance of the Board on a lot of content moderation policies that Facebook has, and those that have constantly been flagged for being insufficient in addressing the issues that the platform has.”
Khan is of the view that the new announcement that the Board will not share opinions on Facebook’s policies is telling of its independence that the social media platform wants everyone to believe. She says, “In addition to relieving the Board from addressing issues with political campaigns and communication on the platform as the US moves towards its Presidential Elections in November, the stripping of the Board’s authority to share its opinions on Facebook’s content moderation is a big question mark on its independence from Facebook’s influence.”
In May 2020, the four co-chairs of the Oversight Board wrote an opinion in The New York Times titled, “We Are a New Board Overseeing Facebook. Here’s What We’ll Decide.” In the piece, they insisted that the decisions made will be “without regard to the economic, political or reputational interests of the company.”
After the recent update from the Board on Twitter, observers rightly pointed out whether the co-chairs have been writing the aforementioned and various other opinions in their personal capacity, and what is Facebook’s involvement if they are not representing the Oversight Board when they say, “We Are A New Board Overseeing Facebook”.
Carol Cadwalladar, a British journalist and author, who helped whistleblower Christopher Wylie in leaking the infamous Cambridge Analytica scandal involving Facebook in influencing 2016 Presidential Elections in the US, wrote about the Board’s update on her Twitter, “This is a body appointed by Facebook to take on a role defined by Facebook on Facebook’s terms. It has just tweeted that it will not make its first rulings till ‘late fall’ i.e after the presidential election. Does anybody spot a problem here?”
This further highlights the same concerns of the Board’s independence and Facebook’s involvement in influencing the decisions it takes. Others like Cadwalladar, have also pointed out that the decision to make the board functional only after the elections is Facebook’s attempt to not lose on the political ad revenue by fact-checking ads that are often based on misinformation to influence voters’ decisions.
Featured image by Barefoot Communications on Unsplash
Hija is a Programs Manager at Media Matters for Democracy. She combines her experience in digital rights in Pakistan to lead digital rights and internet governance advocacy of MMfD. She tweets at @hijakamran