Oversight Board Tells Facebook It Needs To Shape Up And Be More Careful About Silencing Minorities Seeking To Criticize The Powerful

from the pay-attention-to-this dept

Tomorrow, the Oversight Board is set to reveal its opinion on whether Facebook made the right decision in banning former President Trump. And that will get tons of attention. But the Board came out with an interesting decision last week regarding a content takedown in India, that got almost no attention at all.

Just last week, we wrote about an ongoing issue in India, where the government of Prime Minister Narendra Modi has failed in almost every way possible in dealing with the COVID pandemic, but has decided the best thing to focus on right now is silencing critics on Twitter. That backdrop is pretty important considering that the very next day, the Oversight Board scolded Facebook for taking down content criticizing Modi's government.

That takedown was somewhat different and the context was very different. Also, it should be noted that as soon as the Oversight Board agreed to take the case, Facebook admitted it had made a mistake and reinstated the content. However, this case demonstrates something important that often gets lost in all of the evidence free hand-wringing about "anti-conservative bias" from people who wrongly insist that Facebook and Twitter only moderate the accounts of their friends. The truth is that content all across the board gets moderated -- and often the impact is strongest on the least powerful groups. But, of course, part of their lack of power is that they're unable to rush onto Fox News and whine about how they're being "censored."

The details here are worth understanding, not because there was some difficult decision to make. Indeed, as noted already, Facebook realized it made a mistake almost immediately after the Oversight Board decided to look into this, and when asked why the content was taken down, basically admitted that it had no idea and that it was a complete and total mistake. Here was the content, as described by the Oversight Board ruling:

The content touched on allegations of discrimination against minorities and silencing of the opposition in India by “Rashtriya Swayamsevak Sangh” (RSS) and the Bharatiya Janata Party (BJP). RSS is a Hindu nationalist organization that has allegedly been involved in violence against religious minorities in India. “BJP” is India’s ruling party to which the current Indian Prime Minister Narendra Modi belongs, and has close ties with RSS.

In November 2020, a user shared a video post from Punjabi-language online media Global Punjab TV and an accompanying text. The post featured a 17-minute interview with Professor Manjit Singh, described as “a social activist and supporter of the Punjabi culture.” In its post, Global Punjab TV included the caption “RSS is the new threat. Ram Naam Satya Hai. The BJP moved towards extremism.” The media company also included an additional description “New Threat. Ram Naam Satya Hai! The BJP has moved towards extremism. Scholars directly challenge Modi!” The content was posted during India’s mass farmer protests and briefly touched on the reasons behind the protests and praised them.

The user added accompanying text when sharing Global Punjab TV’s post in which they stated that the CIA designated the RSS a “fanatic Hindu terrorist organization” and that Indian Prime Minister Narendra Modi was once its president. The user wrote that the RSS was threatening to kill Sikhs, a minority religious group in India, and to repeat the “deadly saga” of 1984 when Hindu mobs attacked Sikhs. They stated that “The RSS used the Death Phrase ‘Ram naam sat hai’.” The Board understands the phrase "Ram Naam Satya Hai" to be a funeral chant that has allegedly been used as a threat by some Hindu nationalists. The user alleged that Prime Minister Modi himself is formulating the threat of “Genocide of the Sikhs” on advice of the RSS President, Mohan Bhagwat. The accompanying text ends with a claim that Sikhs in India should be on high alert and that Sikh regiments in the army have warned Prime Minister Modi of their willingness to die to protect the Sikh farmers and their land in Punjab.

The post was up for 14 days and viewed fewer than 500 times before it was reported by another user for “terrorism.” A human reviewer determined that the post violated the Community Standard on Dangerous Individuals and Organizations and took down the content, which also triggered an automatic restriction on the use of the account for a fixed period of time. In its notification to the user, Facebook noted that its decision was final and could not be reviewed due to a temporary reduction in its review capacity due to COVID-19. For this reason, the user appealed to the Oversight Board.

So, you had an ethnic minority -- one who had been attacked in the past -- warning about those currently in power. And Facebook took it down, refused to review the appeal... until the Oversight Board turned its eye on it, and then admitted it was a mistake, and basically threw its hands in the air and said it had no idea why it had been taken down in the first place.

According to Facebook, following a single report against the post, the person who reviewed the content wrongly found a violation of the of the Dangerous Individuals and Organizations Community Standard. Facebook informed the Board that the user’s post included no reference to individuals or organizations designated as dangerous. It followed that the post contained no violating praise.

Facebook explained that the error was due to the length of the video (17 minutes), the number of speakers (two), the complexity of the content, and its claims about various political groups. The company added that content reviewers look at thousands of pieces of content every day and mistakes happen during that process. Due to the volume of content, Facebook stated that content reviewers are not always able to watch videos in full. Facebook was unable to specify the part of the content the reviewer found to violate the company’s rules.

Got that? Facebook is basically saying "yeah, it was a mistake, but that was because it was a long video, and we just had one person reviewing who probably didn't watch the whole video."

Here's the thing that the "oh no, Facebook is censoring people" don't get. This happens all the time. And none of us hear about it because the people it happens to often are unable to make themselves heard. They don't get to run to Fox News or Parler or some other place and yell and scream. And, this kind of "accidental" moderation especially happens to the marginalized. Reviewers may not fully understand what's going on, or not really understand the overall context, and may take the "report" claim at face value, rather than having the ability or time to fully investigate.

In the end, the Oversight Board told Facebook to put back the content, which was a no-brainer since Facebook had already done so. However, more interesting were its policy recommendations (which, again, are not binding on Facebook, but which the company promises to respond to). Here, the Oversight Board said that Facebook should make its community standards much more accessible and understandable, including translating the rules into more languages.

However, the more interesting bit was that it said that Facebook "should restore human review and access to a human appeals process to pre-pandemic levels as soon as possible while fully protecting the health of Facebook’s staff and contractors." There were some concerns, early in the pandemic, about how well content moderation teams could work from home, since a lot of that job involves looking at fairly sensitive material. So, there may be reasons this is not really doable just yet.

Still, this case demonstrates a key point that we've tried to raise about the impossibility of doing content moderation at scale. So much of it is not about biases, or incompetence, or bad policies, or not wanting to do what's right. A hell of a lot of it is just... when you're trying to keep a website used by half the world operating, mistakes are going to be made.

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Filed Under: appeals, content moderation, free speech, india, minorities, mistakes, review, takedowns
Companies: facebook, oversight board


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  1. identicon
    MightyMetricBatman, 4 May 2021 @ 1:05pm

    Re:

    Also, there are often strict time limits on deciding the fate of the post. It would not surprise at all if the time limit, whether imposed by Facebook or the contracting company, is a fraction of the 17 minute video.


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