Facebook Oversight Board's First Decisions… Seem To Confirm Everyone's Opinions Of The Board
from the take-a-deep-breath dept
Last week, the Oversight Board — which is the official name that the former Facebook Oversight Board wants you to call it — announced decisions on the first five cases it has heard. It overturned four Facebook content moderation decisions and upheld one. Following the announcement, Facebook announced that (as it had promised) it followed all of the Oversight Board’s decisions and reinstated the content on the overturned cases (in one case, involving taking down a breast cancer ad that had been deemed to violate the “no nudity” policy, Facebook actually reinstated the content last year, after the Board announced it was reviewing that decision). If you don’t want to wade into the details, NPR’s write-up of the decisions and policy recommendations is quite well done and easily digestible.
If you want a more detailed and thoughtful analysis of the decisions and what this all means, I highly recommend Evelyn Douek’s detailed analysis of the key takeaways from the rulings.
What I’m going to discuss, however, is how the decisions seem to have only reinforced… absolutely everyone’s opinions of the Oversight Board. I’ve said before that I think the Oversight Board is a worthwhile experiment, and one worth watching, but it is just one experiment. And, as such, it is bound to make mistakes and adapt over time. I can understand the reasoning behind each of the five decisions, though I’m not sure I would have ruled the same way.
What’s more interesting to me, though, is how so many people are completely locked in to their original view of the board, and how insistent they are that the first decisions only confirm their position. It’s no secret that many people absolutely hate Facebook and view absolutely everything the company does as unquestionably evil. I’m certainly not a fan of many of the company’s practices, and don’t think that the Oversight Board is as important as some make it out to be, but that doesn’t mean it’s not worth paying attention to.
But I tended to see a few different responses to the first rulings, which struck me as amusing, since the positions are simply not disprovable:
1. The Oversight Board is just here to rubberstamp Facebook’s decisions and make it look like there’s some level of review.
This narrative is slightly contradicted by the fact that the Oversight Board overturned four decisions. However, people who believe this view retort that “well, of course the initial decisions have to do this to pretend to be independent.” Which… I guess? But seems like a lot of effort for no real purpose. To me, at least, the first five decisions are not enough to make a judgment call on this point either way. Let’s see what happens over a longer time frame.
2. The Oversight Board is just a way for Facebook and Zuckerberg not to take real responsibility
I don’t see how this one is supportable. It’s kind of a no-win situation either way. Every other company in the world that does content moderation has a final say on their decisions, because it’s their website. Facebook is basically the first and only site so far to hand off those decisions to a 3rd party — and it did so after a ton of people whined that Facebook had too much power. And the fact that this body is now pushing back on Facebook’s decisions suggests that there’s at least some initial evidence that the Board might force Zuckerberg to take more responsibility. Indeed, the policy recommendations (not just the decisions directly on content moderation) suggest that the Board is taking its role as being an independent watchdog over how Facebook operates somewhat seriously. But, again, it’s perhaps too early to tell, and this will be a point worth watching.
3. The Oversight Board has no real power, so it doesn’t matter what they do.
The thing is, while this may be technically true, I’m not sure it matters. If Facebook actually does follow through and agree to abide by the Board’s rulings, and the Board continues the initial path it’s set of being fairly critical of Facebook’s practices, then for all intents and purposes it does have real power. Sometimes, the power comes just from the fact that Facebook may feel generally committed to following through, rather than through any kind of actual enforcement mechanism.
4. The Oversight Board is only reviewing a tiny number of cases, so who cares?
This is clearly true, but again, the question is how it will matter in the long run. At least from the initial set of decisions, it’s clear that the Oversight Board is not just taking a look at the specific cases in front of it, but thinking through the larger principles at stake, and making recommendations back to Facebook about how to implement better policies. That could have a very big impact on how Facebook operates over time.
As for my take on all of this? As mentioned up top, I think this is a worthwhile experiment, though I’ve long doubted it would have that big of an impact on Facebook itself. I see no reason to change my opinion on that yet, but I am surprised at the thoroughness of these initial decisions and how far they go in pushing back on certain Facebook policies. I guess I’d update my opinion to say I’ve moved from thinking the Oversight Board had a 20% chance of having a meaningful impact, to now it being maybe 25 to 30% likely. Some will cynically argue that this is all for show, and the first cases had to be like that. And perhaps that’s true. I guess that’s why no one is forced to set their opinion in stone just yet, and we’ll have plenty of time to adjust as more decisions come out.