Experts weigh in on Facebook’s new Oversight Board

Note: I originally wrote this for the newsletter at the Columbia Journalism Review, where I am the chief digital writer

Almost two years after it first started talking about the idea, Facebook finally announced the first members of its so-called Oversight Board, the “Supreme Court” that will — theoretically, at least — have the ability to overrule Facebook and its CEO Mark Zuckerberg when it comes to questions about whether certain types of content should be taken down or not. The 20 initial members were announced last week (there will be a total of about 40 at some point in the future, Facebook says), and they are an impressive group, including a Nobel Peace Prize winner, multiple experts in constitutional law, a former federal court judge, etc. But despite this pedigreed roster, there are still plenty of problematic questions about the board itself, including: How much power will it actually have? Is it just an elaborate PR effort designed to make it look as though the company is doing something, to keep regulators at bay?

We used CJR’s Galley discussion platform to host a virtual panel discussion on these and other related questions, with input from a number of journalists and other experts including Daphne Keller, a director at the Stanford Center for Internet and Society and former deputy legal counsel at Google; Steven Levy, Wired magazine editor-at-large and author of the recent book “Facebook: The Inside Story“; David Kaye, the UN’s special rapporteur for freedom of expression; Alex Stamos, director of the Stanford Internet Observatory and former head of security at Facebook; Emily Bell, director of the Tow Center for Digital Journalism at Columbia University’s journalism school, and Rebecca MacKinnon, a co-founder of Global Voices and founding director of the Ranking Digital Rights project the New America Foundation.

Levy said he first heard about the oversight board concept when Mark Zuckerberg, Facebook’s CEO, mentioned it as something he was mulling over, a way to address his often-stated remark that “You don’t want me to determine who gets to say what.” The veteran technology writer said his reaction to Zuckerberg has always been to say “you built this system and now you own it, including the responsibility for what’s on it,” but he admitted that he is intrigued by the idea that Zuckerberg — even in a small way — has “authorized an outside body to overrule him, a power that for all effective purposes, even his board of directors doesn’t have.” MacKinnon, however, noted that while the board’s membership is illustrious, “it cannot stop the exploitative collection and sharing of user data, or stop the company from deploying opaque algorithms that prioritize inflammatory content to maximize engagement.”

Bell said she is concerned that the board’s ambit is restricted (at least for the time being, it can’t hear cases involving advertising or the algorithm, and can’t discuss content that has been left up, only content that has been taken down), but she has a larger concern as well. She said the fact that the board is stacked with experts in constitutional law and human rights means that those people can no longer participate in broader discussions about regulating platforms like Facebook. “They are now effectively within the Facebook corporate tent,” she said. “It negates their participation in any truly independent evaluation of how we might regulate either Facebook or the public sphere. It buys up potential dissent or criticism.” Kaye said that he would be “disappointed and shocked” if the board members, many of whom he knows, were to muzzle their opinions. The fact that so many people with strong reputations have been chosen, he says “makes it harder not to follow their decisions.”

Stamos said that content moderation at the kind of scale that Facebook employs is a complicated pursuit, but instead of appointing platform specialists, the board instead has constitutional law experts and human rights lawyers. The most pervasive issues Facebook faces, he said, relate to “having to make a choice between catching all of the bad stuff and how much over-censorship happens once they have made a decision to take something down. I don’t see a Board that is staffed with legal scholars and that meets part-time as helping with that issue.” If the board takes a Supreme Court-style approach and takes months to consider an issue, but doesn’t have an understanding of how the platform works, “then I don’t know how they will be effective,” he said.

Here’s more on the Oversight Board:

No influence: Siva Vaidhyanathan, professor of media studies at the University of Virginia and author of the recent book “Antisocial Media: How Facebook Disconnects Us And Undermines Democracy,writes in Wired magazine that the Oversight Board “will have no influence over anything that really matters in the world.” Because of the restrictions on what it can adjudicate, he says, it “can’t say anything about the toxic content that Facebook allows and promotes on the site. It will have no authority over advertising or the massive surveillance that makes Facebook ads so valuable [and] it won’t curb disinformation campaigns or dangerous conspiracies.”

Overwhelmed: Casey Newton, writing for The Verge, says that the Oversight Board, as well-intentioned as it might be, could be overwhelmed by the task ahead of it. “I like to say that people basically all have the same policy when it comes to content moderation: take down the bad posts, and leave up the good ones,” he says. “The trouble comes when people disagree about which posts are good and which posts are bad, and resolving those disputes in a manner that is principled, timely, and consistent has bedeviled every social network that has ever attempted the feat. The problems tend to get harder as you grow, and so Facebook — with 2.37 billion monthly users — arguably has the hardest moderation challenge of all.”

Expansion: In designing the board, Facebook deliberately structured it so that this independent entity could potentially accept funding from sources outside Facebook and offer services to other platforms that need content moderation help, Issie Lapowsky writes for Protocol. But not everyone thinks that is a good idea. “If this becomes a mechanism to move more and more of the internet toward one single set of rules, that’s a real loss,” Daphne Keller told Lapowsky. “One of my main concerns is that lawmakers who are desperate for a quick fix will say, ‘Aha! The quick fix has arrived,’ and make something like this mandatory before we see how well it works.”

Other notable stories:

Condé Nast, publisher of the New Yorker, Wired and Vanity Fair, is laying off just under 100 staffers in the US, reports the Wall Street Journal, in an attempt to cut costs to deal with the decline in advertising revenue. In a memo to employees, chief executive Roger Lynch said a similar number of people would be temporarily furloughed and a small number would have reduced work schedules. “These decisions are never easy, and not something I ever take lightly,” Lynch said in the memo. The layoffs are expected to affect employees in advertising, editorial, and corporate, according to a company spokesman. Lynch said that no magazines are being closed or going digital only.

BuzzFeed is giving up on local news and politics coverage in the UK and Australia, according to a report in the Guardian, in favor of news that “hits big” in the United States. The company, which was already struggling financially before the coronavirus pandemic, had previous put 10 newsroom staff in the UK and four in Australia on furlough as part of a cost-cutting drive. But the Guardian said sources told the newspaper that those furloughed are “highly unlikely” to return to BuzzFeed. Staff are being kept on to cover news that has a global audience, including investigative reporting and celebrity news coverage, the paper said.

Study Hall, an online publication run by a group of freelance journalists, has published an in-depth look at Civil, the company that tried to create a blockchain-powered platform for independent journalism but had its plans derailed by a failed cryptocurrency launch. Based on interviews with some of the journalists who tried to build newsrooms on the platform, the piece paints a picture of a well-intentioned effort that was too complicated for many to understand, and relied on an unproven market for blockchain technologies.

A coalition of Baltimore-based philanthropists is hoping to acquire the 183-year-old Baltimore Sun newspaper and turn it into a non-profit, according to a report in the Guardian. The paper is owned by Tribune Publishing, a chain whose largest single shareholder is Alden Global Capital, a New York-based hedge fund infamous for making deep cuts at the newspapers it controls. “The Sun is one of the most important civic institutions that really belongs to everyone in Baltimore,” said Matthew Gallagher, president and chief of the Goldseker Foundation, one of the leaders of the group that is trying to acquire the newspaper.

Media analyst Owen Van Essen, who runs a Santa Fe-based newspaper industry mergers and acquisition firm, told the Minnesota Star-Tribune that there are “200 to 300 small weekly newspapers that will not be around by the end of the year” as a result of continued pressure on advertising revenue from the coronavirus pandemic. And many that don’t close completely will reduce their publication frequency, he said. Van Essen estimates that as many as 500 papers will reduce their publication schedule this year.

People magazine’s digital team has announced its intention to form a union, joining its print division, which is already unionized, according to a report in The Hollywood Reporter. Ninety-six percent of People‘s digital employees nationwide who are eligible have signed cards indicating their interest in forming a union with the NewsGuild, the report says. The proposed union would cover all 49 of People‘s digital employees, who work in New York, Los Angeles and remotely. The print side of People, which is owned by Meredith Corp., unionized with the NewsGuild in the 1970s.

The Journalism and the Pandemic Project, a research partnership between the International Center For Journalists and the Tow Center for Digital Journalism at Columbia, has launched a global survey aimed at understanding the impact of the coronavirus on journalism. “We aim to find out what is needed to keep journalism viable: What does the field require in both short-term and long-term support and training?” the partners announced on Wednesday. “How are journalists responding creatively to the challenges of reporting during the time of coronavirus? What can be done to help protect journalists and defend media freedom during the pandemic?”

An army of bot accounts linked to an alleged Chinese government-backed propaganda campaign is spreading disinformation on social media about the coronavirus and other topics, according to a report by Bloomberg based on interviews with a London-based researcher. The accounts have been used to promote content attacking critics of the Chinese government and to spread conspiracy theories blaming the U.S. for the origins of virus, according to Benjamin Strick, who specializes in analyzing information operations on social media websites.

Facing an urgent demand for access to the latest coronavirus research, scientists are speeding up the process of publicizing their findings, at the risk of enabling the spread of scientific misinformation, Coda reports. In recent months, the online magazine says, researchers studying the virus have increasingly opted to post their papers as soon as they are written, ahead of the usual process of peer review and journal publication, to online repositories of academic articles known as “pre-print servers.” Many of these are then reported uncritically by mainstream media outlets, the story says.

New York Times health reporter Donald McNeil was admonished by his employer for comments he made about the Centers for Disease Control during an interview with Christiane Amanpour, but media critic Dan Froomkin says McNeil “deserves accolades, not a scolding.” McNeil said the CDC was a great agency but that director Robert Redfield should resign, and the Times released a statement saying McNeil “went too far in expressing his personal views. His editors have discussed the issue with him to reiterate that his job is to report the facts and not to offer his own opinions.” Froomkin said McNeil “did exactly what more journalists desperately need to be doing right now.”

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