Will Facebook’s new oversight board be a radical shift or a reputational shield?

Julia Carrie Wong:

I wish I could say that the Facebook review board was cosmetic, but I’m not even sure that it’s that deep,” said Siva Vaidhyanathan, a professor of media studies at the University of Virginia and author of a book on Facebook. “If Facebook really wanted to take outside criticism seriously at any point in the past decade, it could have taken human rights activists seriously about problems in Myanmar; it could have taken journalists seriously about problems in the Philippines; it could have taken legal scholars seriously about the way it deals with harassment; and it could have taken social media scholars seriously about the ways that it undermines democracy in India and Brazil. But it didn’t. This is greenwashing.”

The board’s initial work will be to review appeals of Facebook’s content takedowns, and it will be empowered to overrule decisions made by Facebook’s army of content moderators or executives.

In this way, the board appears designed to address the kind of controversies that Facebook has faced over content with journalistic, historic or artistic merit that nevertheless violates the company’s advertiser-friendly “community standards”, such as the international outcry over its censorship of the “Napalm girl” photograph in 2016 or the years-long legal dispute over its shuttering of the account of a Frenchman who had posted Gustave Courbet’s The Origin of the World. Other pressing issues that could face the panel include content from anti-vaccine activists, conspiracy theorists or rightwing extremists who have become adept at gaming the platform’s rules.

“Facebook is a company that was made by brilliant engineers, and they were extremely good at that, and then they discovered that they were going to have to make complex decisions that would tax anyone, that were moral, legal, ethical, about privacy,” said Alan Rusbridger, the former editor-in-chief of the Guardian and a member of the new oversight board. “Those are decisions that newspaper editors make every day of our lives.”

But Vaidhyanathan argued that such questions are insignificant compared to Facebook’s power to amplify certain content over other content. And while Facebook has said that it may expand the scope of the oversight board’s decision making to other policy areas, it is unlikely that the board’s power will extend to re-tuning Facebook’s algorithms.

Many taxpayer supported K-12 school districts use Facebook services, including Madison.