Explainer | What is Facebook’s Oversight Board?

May 06, 2021 08:00 pm | Updated November 30, 2021 06:37 pm IST

The investigation showed that prior to January 6, five of Mr. Trump’s posts had been found violating Facebook’s community standards.

The investigation showed that prior to January 6, five of Mr. Trump’s posts had been found violating Facebook’s community standards.

Facebook’s Oversight Board on Wednesday upheld the social media network’s decision on January 7 to block the then-US President Donald Trump from its platform. Facebook had decided to indefinitely block Mr. Trump for using the platform to, as its CEO Mark Zuckerberg put it then, “incite violent insurrection against a democratically elected government.”

A day earlier, with just two weeks to go for Mr. Biden’s inauguration, Mr. Trump’s supporters gathered around Capitol Hill and in the violence that ensued, five lives were lost. Twice during the protests of January 6, Mr. Trump’s posts, asserting that the 2020 election was stolen, were removed for violating Facebook’s community standards. Those assertions couldn’t be proved in the court of law. After the second post, he was blocked for 24 hours from the platform. The next day Facebook extended the block indefinitely. And on January 21, it referred the case to its Oversight Board. Here’s more about the board:

What is the Oversight Board?

The Oversight Board has been set up as an independent body that will help Facebook figure out what content can be allowed on the platform and what ought to be removed. Mr. Zuckerberg first wrote about the idea in 2018, saying in a note that “I’ve increasingly come to believe that Facebook should not make so many important decisions about free expression and safety on our own.” It was said to have emerged out of the tensions around the often conflicting goals of maintaining Facebook as a platform for free speech and effectively filtering out problematic speech.

According to a recent article in The New Yorker magazine, the idea “for the Oversight Board came from Noah Feldman, a fifty-year-old professor at Harvard Law School, who has written a biography of James Madison and helped draft the interim Iraqi constitution.” Mr. Feldman, a friend of Facebook COO Sheryl Sandberg, felt “Facebook needs a Supreme Court” to decide on difficult questions around freedom of speech.

The members who make the Oversight Board came on board a year ago. Facebook’s welcome note at that time said, “We expect them to make some decisions that we, at Facebook, will not always agree with - but that’s the point: they are truly autonomous in their exercise of independent judgment.” It started taking up cases last October. The website of the Oversight Board lists 20 members, including the former editor--in-chief of The Guardian newspaper Alan Rusbridger, Vice Chancellor of the National Law School of India University Sudhir Krishnaswamy, and former Prime Minister of Denmark Helle Thorning-Schmidt. Facebook as well as its users can refer cases to the board. The decisions of the board are binding on Facebook.

Just days before this case, the Oversight Board overturned Facebook’s decision to remove a post that had alleged that the RSS and Prime Minister Narendra Modi were threatening to kill Sikhs in India.

What exactly did the board rule in this case involving Mr. Trump?

The board did uphold Facebook’s decision to block Mr. Trump but also said “it was not appropriate for Facebook to impose the indeterminate and standardless penalty of indefinite suspension.”

Its point was that Facebook usually responded to violations by either removing such content, or suspending the user for a specific time-period, or effecting a permanent ban. Indefinite suspensions aren’t part of its response mix, which is what has been flagged. The Board has now given Facebook six months to come up with a “proportionate response that is consistent with the rules that are applied to other users of its platform.”

What else did it find out about Mr. Trump’s posts?

The investigation showed that prior to January 6, five of Mr. Trump’s posts had been found violating Facebook’s community standards. They were therefore removed. One of these posts, in August 2020, violated Facebook’s COVID-19 misinformation policy. Mr. Trump’s Facebook page received a ‘strike’ for this (a Facebook page is removed after a certain number of strikes). The Board said Facebook didn’t explain “why other violating content it had removed did not result in strikes.”

Twenty other pieces of Mr. Trump’s content were marked as potential violations by the review system but were later found to be okay. Sometimes Facebook allows violating content to be on its platform if it considers it to be newsworthy and in public interest. The Board revealed Facebook asserted that it “has never applied the newsworthiness allowance to content posted by the Trump Facebook page or Instagram account.”

What are its recommendations?

The Board wants Facebook to act quickly when it comes to content of a political nature coming from influential users. Its idea is to escalate such content to specialised staff as also assess potential harms from such accounts. It also wants Facebook to be more transparent about its policies regarding assistance to investigations as well as its penalty rules.

It also wants Facebook to comprehensively review its “potential contribution to the narrative of electoral fraud and the exacerbated tensions that culminated in the violence in the United States on January 6. This should be an open reflection on the design and policy choices that Facebook has made that may allow its platform to be abused.”

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