Today let’s talk about Facebook’s Oversight Board, the “real” Oversight Board, and what it means for the 2020 election.
Last week I wrote about how Facebook’s vast size and monarchic corporate structure had contributed to a steady stream of controversies all summer. When every decision on which posts to remove comes down to the judgment of one person, that person will be subject to enormous pressure to take one side or another. Facebook’s proposed solution to this is the Oversight Board, an independent group that will serve as a kind of Supreme Court for content moderation.
When it’s up and running, the board will hear appeals from users who believe their posts have been removed in error, and will either uphold Facebook’s original call or reverse it. Inevitably, the board will take some actions that Facebook itself disagrees with, and from that tension the board will derive its legitimacy.
The board has several limitations, which we’ve covered here before, but the most urgent one at the moment is this: it’s still not operating. The board named its members in May, raising hopes that it would be hearing cases by now. But in July, the board said it would not be operational before the election. That created much frustration among critics who argue that during such a critical election Facebook could use more oversight.
But it seems that we’ll be having some oversight after all. Here’s Olivia Solon at NBC News:
A group of about 25 experts from academia, civil rights, politics and journalism announced Friday that they have formed a group to analyze and critique Facebook’s content moderation decisions, policies and other platform issues in the run-up to the presidential election and beyond.
The group, which calls itself the Real Facebook Oversight Board, plans to hold its first meeting via Facebook Live on Oct. 1. It will be hosted by Recode founder Kara Swisher, a New York Times contributing opinion writer.
My first reaction to the Real Oversight Board was a dismayed skepticism. For a group of experts who are so vocally concerned about misinformation to declare themselves something they’re not — a real oversight board — feels like a misstep. And given how vocal many of the group’s members already are in their Facebook criticisms — mostly on Twitter — I question what a weekly Zoom call is going to add to the mix. (As a Facebook spokesman told Solon, fairly I think, “This new effort is mostly longtime critics creating a new channel for existing criticisms.”)
My second reaction, though, was that I like art projects, and the Real Oversight Board seems to qualify as one. “We will use stunts, viral video, celebrity endorsement and skillful media management to throw a spotlight on the real-time threats to democracy from the misuse of social media platforms and big tech,” the group told Axios. It gets a little more self-aggrandizing from there — “Democracy needs its own PR team and creative agency. We are it” — but the basic point stands. If Facebook’s Oversight Board won’t provide oversight before the election, someone else will.
One reason that I like art projects — particularly of the corporation-embarrassing variety — is that sometimes they can have an outsized effect. And, sure enough, two days before the Real Oversight Board’s coming-out party — but after Facebook was aware of its intentions — the company reversed itself. (A board spokesman said the timing of the announcements was not connected.) Here’s Hannah Murphy at the Financial Times:
Facebook will launch its ‘Supreme Court’-style oversight body ahead of the US election, according to two people familiar with its plans, after facing rising criticism for its perceived failure to tackle hateful and divisive content.
The independent oversight board, which will rule on what is allowed on Facebook’s platforms and whether its policies are fair, will start accepting cases from mid to late October, the people said.
So what effect will any of this have?
The actual real Oversight Board — the one whose decisions will compel Facebook to act — is primarily focused on which controversial posts it ought to leave up. Initially, it plans to hear appeals only from users whose posts were removed. If your beef is that the president uses Facebook to say, falsely, that mail-in ballots “cannot be accurately counted,” as he did today, then the Oversight Board won’t help you. The reason is that the board was conceived, first and foremost, as a defender of speech rather than election integrity.
Facebook could ask the board to give it an opinion on a takedown issue, but these requests will be in the small minority of cases submitted to the body. Given that misinformation from the president is perhaps the defining story of the 2020 election, all of this feels like (sorry) an oversight.
“Many groups have strong opinions on how Facebook should moderate content, and we welcome new efforts to encourage debate,” a spokesman for the Oversight Board told me. “The members of the Oversight Board are focused on building an institution that will make binding decisions on Facebook’s most significant content issues.”
Meanwhile, the fake Real Oversight Board tells me that it plans to pick up where the actual real Oversight Board leaves off.
“It’s been misreported as being about ‘content moderation,’ but it’s about addressing the whole thing: ads, algorithmic amplification, group recommendations, etc.,” a spokesperson told me. “The OB is focussing solely on stuff that’s been taken down at launch. Our chief concern at this time is on what’s up.” Thursday’s Zoom call will be a “curtain raiser” that walks through some of the more disturbing scenarios we may see in the run-up to, and aftermath, of the November 3rd election, the spokesperson said.
I continue to believe in the Oversight Board as a check on Facebook’s power — we’ve truly never seen its like before. But it’s also clear that its initial shape is ill-suited to the most pressing concerns of the moment. A lesson of the 2020 campaign so far is that Facebook struggles to remove harmful speech even when it makes a policy of doing so. It feels like an odd time to unveil your big effort to restore posts that were taken down in error, no matter how unjust their removal may have been.
On Thursday I wrote about Telepath, a buzzy new network that is taking a highly interventionist approach to content moderation. I got two smart criticisms from readers. Andrew Losowsky, my colleague at Vox Media and head of the Coral Project, pointed out that forcing people to use their real names doesn’t always result in civil conversations. And in some cases, particularly for women, a real-names policy can make harassment issues worse.
Another reader points out that Telepath’s attempt to enforce policies based on what a “reasonable person” would do creates its own opening for bias and discrimination. The co-founders of Telepath are both white men; will their standard of reasonableness reflect the larger community’s? To be fair, co-founder Marc Bodnick told me the company had embraced a policy of “kindness” rather than “civility” for this exact reason. “The problem with ‘civil’ is it’s a word that’s used by powerful people to silence less powerful people,” he said.
I still think the Telepath founders have a lot of good ideas. But these criticisms are fair, and worth keeping in mind as it invites more people in.
Today in news that could affect public perception of the big tech platforms.
⬇️ Trending down: A Facebook executive told Politico that right-wing populism is always more engaging, which gives it an advantage on social networks. The remarks come in response to concerns that Facebook’s algorithm favors conservatives. My Twitter feed melted down over these comments on Sunday. Anybody know who the executive quoted here is? (Alex Thompson / Politico)
Fox News will face enormous pressure to call the election for President Trump on November 3rd. Arnon Mishkin, a 65-year-old wonk who runs the network’s decision desk, might be all that stands in the way of a premature victory announcement. (Ben Smith / The New York Times)
Facebook, Twitter and YouTube need a plan to combat misinformation about the outcome of the US presidential election. If right-wing pundits start amplifying a Trump message prematurely declaring victory, a label on the president’s tweets won’t be enough. (The New York Times Editorial Board)
Google is blocking election ads after polls close November 3rd in an effort to limit misinformation about the outcome of the vote. The policy will apply to all ads running through Google’s ad-serving platforms, including Google Ads and YouTube. (Sara Fischer / Axios)
Joe Biden’s campaign is working directly with creators and marketing firms on YouTube and Instagram content to help him reach millions of potential voters. The push is meant as a counterbalance to Trump’s supremacy on the platforms. (Makena Kelly / The Verge)
Russian hackers have been targeting contractors who help run voting systems across the country. Federal officials worry that ransomware groups will try to freeze voter registration data, election poll books, or the computer systems of the secretaries of the state who certify election results. (Nicole Perlroth and David E. Sanger / The New York Times)
Data used by Donald Trump’s 2016 presidential campaign categorized 3.5 million Black Americans as “Deterrence” – voters they wanted to stay home on election day. Some of the data was used to target Facebook ads. (Channel 4 News)
⭐ A federal judge blocked the Trump administration’s attempt to ban TikTok downloads in the US. The move gives ByteDance more time to get approval from authorities in the US and China for a pending deal with Oracle and Walmart. Here are Katy Stech Ferek and Georgia Wells at The Wall Street Journal:
The court drama on Sunday, with the ruling landing less than four hours before the ban was to take effect, was a new chapter in a protracted saga still without a clear ending.
President Trump earlier this month gave the deal his preliminary blessing as a way to address his administration’s national security concerns. The U.S. Committee on Foreign Investment still must approve the particulars, including the sticky question of who would have majority ownership. The Chinese government could also nix it.
The specter of a future U.S. government ban also remains. The U.S. Commerce Department plans Nov. 12 to implement a full ban rendering the app unusable for U.S. users if an American deal for TikTok isn’t completed by then.
The federal judge who granted TikTok’s request for a temporary restraining order unsealed his opinion. He said the ban seeks to regulate the exchange of “informational materials” — something that’s expressly exempted from the law laying out the emergency powers Trump invoked. (Dan Primack / Axios)
Trump’s ban on TikTok and WeChat signals the government’s unwillingness to win on the strength of competition. It’s defeatism masquerading as strength, and mirrors Trump’s foreign policy. (Evan Osnos / The New Yorker)
Chinese authorities want ByteDance to retain control over TikTok’s global operations. They also wants TikTok’s source code to remain secret. (Liza Lin and Lingling Wei / The Wall Street Journal)
Here’s where Donald Trump and Joe Biden stand on the major tech issues. Both candidates support potential antitrust actions against the tech giants, but differ on issues related to misinformation and hate speech. (Ashley Gold / Axios)
Right-wing media personalities are spreading misinformation about Breonna Taylor on YouTube. The videos claim to have “the truth about Breonna Taylor” and follow a familiar format to far-right conspiracies about the Black Lives Matter movement. (Kevin Roose / The New York Times)
Police officers across the country are beginning to endorse QAnon. (Ali Breland / Mother Jones)
An executive order from President Trump could bar Google, Amazon and Microsoft from offering diversity and inclusion training to their employees. The order asks companies with large federal government contracts to choose between the continuing to take hundreds of millions of dollars or offering the trainings. (Emily Birnbaum / Protocol)
Apple will temporarily stop taking a 30 percent cut on Facebook event fees. Earlier this year, the social network launched a new feature that let small businesses create paid online events and said it wouldn’t collect any fees, but noted that Apple would. (James Vincent / The Verge)
Google will no longer allow apps to circumvent its payment system within the Google Play store that provides the company a cut of in-app purchases. The company has had a policy of taking a 30 percent cut of payments made within apps offered by the Google Play store, but some developers including Netflix and Spotify have bypassed the requirement. (Daisuke Wakabayashi / The New York Times)
A system Google set up to promote competition on Android may have made it difficult for smaller search engines to gain traction. The company shows European users a “choice screen” to select their default search engine. Smaller search engines have largely failed to win spots in major European countries in the latest round of auctions to appear on the screen. (Sam Schechner / The Wall Street Journal)
Alphabet reached a settlement on a shareholder lawsuit that accused the board of allegedly mishandling sexual misconduct by its executives. Executives will no longer receive severance while they are subject to investigations related to sexual misconduct, according to the settlement. (Jennifer Elias / CNBC)
Singapore is rolling out facial verification as part of a new national ID system — the first country in the world to do so. The biometric check will give Singaporeans access to government and business services. (Tim McDonald / BBC)
⭐ The pandemic allowed Amazon to gain a foothold in Italy, where people have historically preferred to shop in-person with cash. Roughly 75 percent of Italians shopped online during the lockdown, and the trend hasn’t ended as the worst of the crisis subsides. Adam Satariano and Emma Bubola at The New York Times have the scoop:
Amazon has been one of the biggest winners in the pandemic as people in its most established markets — the United States, Germany and Britain — have flocked to it to buy everything from toilet paper to board games. What has been less noticed is that people in countries that had traditionally resisted the e-commerce giant are now also falling into its grasp after retail stores shut down for months because of the coronavirus.
The shift has been particularly pronounced in Italy, which was one of the first countries hard hit by the virus. Italians have traditionally preferred to shop in stores and pay cash. But after the government imposed Europe’s first nationwide virus lockdown, Italians began buying items online in record numbers.
Amazon Prime Day is scheduled to take place on October 13th and 14th this year. The company postponed its biggest shopping day of the year due to skyrocketing demand in the face of the coronavirus pandemic. (Annie Palmer / CNBC)
Indie developers are worried about Facebook’s power in VR. Some say they feel like guinea pigs, building cool stuff so that Facebook can see what works and eventually buy them out or copy them. (Adi Robertson / The Verge)
Twitter emailed developers to warn about a bug that may have exposed their private app keys and account tokens. The company said the private keys and tokens may have been improperly stored in the browser’s cache by mistake. (Zack Whittaker / TechCrunch)
Downloads of the end-to-end encrypted messaging app Signal surged this year amid protests against police brutality. In June, the company rolled out a new feature allowing users to blur people’s faces in photos of crowds. (Billy Perrigo / Time)
About a quarter of all US adults say they get at least some of their news from YouTube. There, established news organizations and independent creators thrive side-by-side. (Pew Research Center)
LinkedIn is rolling out its own version of Stories, as part of a major redesign. If you figure out what these are for please tell us. (Ingrid Lunden / TechCrunch)
Reports about abuse at a religious boarding school for girls went no where until the owners’ daughter got on TikTok. Her videos exposing allegations of abuse have gotten 33 million views. (Tyler Kingkade / NBC)