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

Reader Comments

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  1. identicon
    Anonymous Coward, 4 May 2021 @ 12:25pm

    I would say that reviewers assuming there must be violations and just TLDR blocking content that's too long or "complex" to actually review is incompetence, or bad policies, or not wanting to do what's right.

    reply to this | link to this | view in thread ]

  2. identicon
    Anonymous Coward, 4 May 2021 @ 12:45pm

    Not surprised

    Big tech is always going to kowtow to a foreign government in order to get market share. India's government gets protected over the little guy. China's government will be protected over religious minorities. The corporations want the market share.

    reply to this | link to this | view in thread ]

  3. icon
    That Anonymous Coward (profile), 4 May 2021 @ 12:54pm

    "we just had one person reviewing who probably didn't watch the whole video"

    We are always right, until the person effected manages to get the attention of people who will watch the whole video and wonder what the fsck the one person reviewing watched.

    reply to this | link to this | view in thread ]

  4. icon
    That Anonymous Coward (profile), 4 May 2021 @ 12:57pm


    Or they are using machine learning to flag things & assume the machine is always right & just pretend to go through the motions.

    reply to this | link to this | view in thread ]

  5. icon
    That One Guy (profile), 4 May 2021 @ 1:05pm

    Re: Not surprised

    ... except in this case they admitted that they screwed up and put the content back up.

    I mean generally that seems to be the case, but posting that comment on an article whey they didn't do that kinda undermines the argument and makes it more difficult for people to take it serious, as at that point it reads less as valid criticism and more 'big tech is always wrong'.

    reply to this | link to this | view in thread ]

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


    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.

    reply to this | link to this | view in thread ]

  7. icon
    Mike Masnick (profile), 4 May 2021 @ 4:30pm

    Re: Not surprised

    But this case did not involve a gov't request.

    reply to this | link to this | view in thread ]

  8. identicon
    Pixelation, 4 May 2021 @ 6:20pm

    The only oversight is, Facebook won't listen to the oversight board.

    reply to this | link to this | view in thread ]

  9. icon
    ECA (profile), 5 May 2021 @ 10:07am

    How to hold the middle ground?

    When you have to deal with 200 countries and All the laws of those areas, How do you hold a middle ground?

    the ruling classes?
    The Rich?
    Who do you let post? And NOT post and what NOT to post?

    Show this to the repubs and the demo. I dont think they will get it either.

    reply to this | link to this | view in thread ]

  10. icon
    nerdrage (profile), 5 May 2021 @ 10:31am

    the best way to think about Twitter and Facebook

    How about if everyone starts thinking about Twitter, Facebook, YouTube etc this way: they are in effect magazines, with infinite numbers of pages to fill, and a very wide-ranging editorial stance that takes articles, videos and other contributions from millions of contributors. And in general they don't pay their writers/video makers.

    But that doesn't mean they can't have an editorial stance and decide that they don't like this or that specific contribution, even when it is being offered for free. They are private publications, regardless of how many contributors they accept or how little they pay for contributions.

    If I write a article and submit it to the New Yorker magazine, I don't expect that they must publish this article and decide my free speech is being infringed if they reject it. Same goes for social media, all of which are profit-motivated corporations just like the New Yorker.

    reply to this | link to this | view in thread ]

  11. icon
    nerdrage (profile), 5 May 2021 @ 10:35am

    Re: How to hold the middle ground?

    Government censorship will be an eternal drag on global platforms. This also happens to companies like Netflix. Content producers in India are self-censoring the content they make in anticipation of the Indian government censoring it if they show something out of line like a Muslim and a Hindu falling in love and kissing, oh horrors.

    This censorship might only apply to Indian Netflix but it applies to everyone since content that might have been made and shown to the world will now never exist and what does exist will be silly soapy sitcoms and other uninteresting fodder.

    reply to this | link to this | view in thread ]

  12. icon
    nerdrage (profile), 5 May 2021 @ 10:37am

    Re: Not surprised

    Yeah, all these corporations are corporations. They can't be expected to fight governments that can just boot them. Look at how China won't let streaming companies like Netflix and Disney+ in, to begin with. They can block any company that gets out of line. India could do likewise, assuming the Indian population puts up with it. What if the Indian government decided to boot Facebook and Twitter? Its up to people to fight back.

    reply to this | link to this | view in thread ]

  13. icon
    Tanner Andrews (profile), 6 May 2021 @ 12:11am

    Re: Re: Not surprised

    assuming the Indian population puts up with it

    They really have little choice. The dictator there, Modi, does not appear to be particularly tolerant of dissent. Look what happened in Kashmir, even before the pandemic.

    The tag #ModiInsultsIndia does not draw much government tolerance over there. Of course, when the dictator essentially disconnects a great portion of the country from the internet and phone service, not much dissent arises to want tolerance.

    reply to this | link to this | view in thread ]

  14. identicon
    Annonymouse, 6 May 2021 @ 11:23am

    Facebook and its tos

    When it comes to commentary posts using Facebook, they tend to let quite a bit of questionable content sit for ages unless there enough people willing to flag the offending posts. On the flip side merely mention a protected political group in a negative light in any form and be prepared for an account suspension.

    I actually ran face first into that when my account got locked for 24hr for posts not acceptable to the tos or some such. I was all huh? No access to said posts highlighting the bad words so I couldn't vet how bad some of the invective was. Then it hit me. There was mention of the CCP that day and an ongoing discussion before the ban hammer hit. A search of posts showed up nothing mentioning that group. So suspicion confirmed.

    reply to this | link to this | view in thread ]

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