Facebook

New Facebook Oversight Board Will Handle Tricky Moderation, but Will It Value Free Speech?

Mark Zuckerberg can't please the anti-tech populists on the left and the right, no matter what he does.

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Facebook CEO Mark Zuckerberg has described content moderation as the most perplexing problem he faces, and so today's announcement that the company had appointed an independent oversight board to review controversial decisions comes as no surprise.

The board will be chaired by Catalina Botero-Marino, a former free expression reporter for the Organization of the American States; Jamal Greene, a Columbia University law professor; Michael W. McConnell, a Stanford University law professor; and 

We will not be able to offer a ruling on every one of the many thousands of cases that we expect to be shared with us each year. We will focus on identifying cases that have a real-world impact, are important for public discourse and raise questions about current Facebook policies. Cases that examine the line between satire and hate speech, the spread of graphic content after tragic events, and whether manipulated content posted by public figures should be treated differently from other content are just some of those that may come before the board.

Over the coming months, we will lay out how we prioritize and select cases for review. Once a case has been chosen, it will be considered by a panel with a rotating set of members. All panel decisions will be reviewed by the entire board before they are finalized, and if a majority of members disagree with a decision, they can ask a new panel to hear the case again.

The composition of the rest of the board was also announced. It includes a number of free speech and international human rights experts. John Samples, a vice president of the libertarian Cato Institute, is one of them.

"Facebook is giving users a way to appeal its content moderation decisions," Samples said in a statement. "The board is charged with making sure such decisions agree with Facebook's values and community standards. Facebook has said 'voice' is its paramount value, so I envision that the board will advance the cause of free speech in the digital era."

Facebook has come under heavy criticism from nearly every point on the political spectrum. Many on the left are angry at Facebook essentially for not doing more aggressive content moderation. Sen. Elizabeth Warren (D–Mass.), for instance, has complained about "misleading" political advertisements on the platform. Celebrities, and many in the media, want Facebook to broadly prevent the spread of disinformation, and are evidently worried that the board is oriented toward protecting controversial speech.

On the other hand, various rightwing commentators think Facebook is too aggressive with its content regulation. Recently, small steps taken by the platform to disallow events that deliberately spread harmful information about COVID-19 provoked widespread cries of censorship.

No one seems to hate Facebook more than Sen. Josh Hawley (R–Mo.), who gave the following reaction to news of the oversight committee:

This is a blatant misrepresentation of the committee's aims, and one that in no way, shape, or form makes any sort of compelling argument for the government to break up Facebook. Indeed, the committee might cause Facebook to be less censorious, in a way that meets the approval of conservatives: After all, it includes a number of individuals whose unique backgrounds as advocates for civil and human rights might make them more inclined to permit controversial content than Facebook's own employees would be. It's hard to avoid the impression that Hawley objects to Facebook's size and influence, and would rail against the company no matter what it did.

The most sensible take on the oversight committee belongs to Jesse Blumenthal, a tech policy expert at Stand Together, who writes that he is "cautiously optimistic" about the potential for the oversight committee to defend free expression. Nevertheless:

There are two interrelated issues: what rules do you set and how do you enforce them. The former is a deliberative choice, the latter is an impossible task that can be refined at the margins. Still, it is clear where Facebook stands on those questions. What is less clear is whether the new oversight board will embrace or resist this shift in values.

Indeed, only five of the initial board appointments come from the United States. The other 15 come from abroad. That is some cause for concern because even the strongest free expression advocates abroad tend to place a lower emphasis on free expression than their American counterparts.

In many discussions about the board both Facebook staff and external activists have pressed the company on geographic representation. This priority is reflected in the bylaws and regularly taken as a given. But by emphasizing geographic diversity the board risks shifting away from a uniquely American approach to free expression.

It's possible that by delegating the most difficult moderation decisions to a third party, Facebook will effectively end up permitting the proliferation of new norms that are actually less friendly to speech than what Zuckerberg himself has envisioned. (Facebook has pledged to abide by the board's decisions, though the bylaws give the company plenty of wiggle room.) I don't think this is the most likely possibility, but it could happen.

Given all the opprobrium the platform has earned for its moderation decisions—which are indeed occasionally flawed, but often not nearly as contemptible as critics claim—Zuckerberg can hardly be faulted for wanting to share this responsibility with another entity. As long as that entity isn't Congress, we should all be grateful.

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Editor's Note: We invite comments and request that they be civil and on-topic. We do not moderate or assume any responsibility for comments, which are owned by the readers who post them. Comments do not represent the views of Reason.com or Reason Foundation. We reserve the right to delete any comment for any reason at any time. Report abuses.

    1. Trust us, we work with the government.

  1. How about no moderating at all solves all the problems

    1. This.

      The idea that Facebook needs any moderation at all is absurd. If you don’t like what someone is saying on Facebook it is very easy to never see anything they’ve said ever again.

      The problem, of course, is that people want to make sure NO ONE ever gets to see what that person said. That’s just censorship, plain and simple. There’s no supporting free speech or free expression if you also support a board of people deciding what people can and cannot see.

      Facebook is a private company and can moderate its website however they see fit, but they cannot have their cake and eat it too. Creating this board is a tacit admission that they do not want free speech or free expression on their platform. That’s their right, but I’m not sure why we should give them any credit for the decision.

    2. Yup, the idea that they just need to ‘moderate harder’ is the antithesis of a solution.


      Section 230 says that “No provider or user of an interactive computer service shall be treated as the publisher or speaker of any information provided by another information content provider” (47 U.S.C. § 230). In other words, online intermediaries that host or republish speech are protected against a range of laws that might otherwise be used to hold them legally responsible for what others say and do.

      So if a pro-KKK post shows up on Facebook, Facebook themselves are now responsible for supporting the KKK since they did not catch it before it went live?

      Alternatively, if Facebook published an internally written ‘news’ post that outright lies about a political candidate do they still have immunity because of Section 230 since they’re ‘just reposting stuff or allowing users to post’?

      And of course this is all before one even thinks about 1st amendment issues and what power, exactly, Congress has in regulating outlets like Facebook in the first place.

      1. Basically this whole section 230 stuff is an argument over a shitty piece of legislation that everyone seems super ok with taking way out of context and applying in arbitrary ways.

        Congress could write something that settles the issue, but we should probably be terrified of what they would look like these days. It would be way more authoritarian than unclear legislation from the 90’s I’d bet.

    3. Agreed. If you don’t like what someone else posts, don’t read it. Why do I need anyone to moderate my reading choices?

  2. Just don’t use Facebook. It’s a waste of your time anyway.

    1. This, although I never have used it to begin with.

    2. It’s not as bad as the aptly named Twitter (their users are mostly twits).

  3. >>Mark Zuckerberg can’t please the anti-tech populists on the left and the right, no matter what he does.

    dude’s a nobody. just has money. if everyone ignored him he’d go away.

  4. I don’t need some smarmy billionaire telling me what I can and cannot say. Fuck Facebook.

  5. The board will be chaired by Catalina Botero-Marino, a former free expression reporter for the Organization of the American States; Jamal Greene, a Columbia University law professor; Michael W. McConnell, a Stanford University law professor; and Helle Thorning-Schmidt, the former prime minister of Denmark.

    What are the odds Helle Thorning-Schmidt, the former prime minister of Denmark and head of the Danish Social Democrat Party is there to provide some right-wing balance for the leftist leanings of the others?

  6. Zuckerberg can hardly be faulted for wanting to share this responsibility with another entity. As long as that entity isn’t Congress, we should all be grateful.

    The problem is that Facebook is a global company, not an American company, and Mark Zuckerberg, by extension, is a globalist rather than an American. Sure, here in America we have the First Amendment to protect our freedom of speech from being infringed by government, but in other countries there’s nothing to stop government from dictating what people may and may not be permitted to say. And if you don’t think Zuckerberg will kiss the stinkiest ass of the stinkiest dictator when they tell him what he is permitted to allow people to say and what he is commanded to prohibit people from saying if he wants to do business in their shithole countries, you don’t know Mark Zuckerberg.

    The problem is that you’re talking about the First Amendment when Facebook doesn’t actually give a shit about the First Amendment, there’s no First Amendment in their world.

  7. This sounds to me like a public-private partnership. At best it’s like the movie industry committee enforcing the Hays Code – set up to pre-empt government censorship. Conventional wisdom said (or used to say) that this committee went too far.

    https://amzn.to/3dmqzJN

    To be clear, I think that in the absence of government pressure – some of it open and some of it not so much – we’d just have a nonproblematic case of a platform making its own decisions of what to host. Profitability would tend to tilt those decisions in a free-speech direction, as opposed to now, where the threat of government censorship is itself a threat to profitability which may well cancel out the benefits of hosting controversial persons and groups.

  8. I went all the way back to…2018…and found this from Jesse Walker about the Hollywood blacklist:

    “The blacklist really did exist. It was an organized effort to remove people from the movie industry for their political opinions, and the federal government played a major role in launching it. Anyone who cares about free expression should object to that sort of censorship by proxy, both as it manifested itself in the early days of the Cold War and as it threatens to re-emerge in social media today.”

    That last sentence was highlighted in big bold print in the article.

    https://reason.com/2018/07/22/the-life-and-death-of-a-hollyw/

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  10. This is such an easy ‘problem’ to solve.

    On each page, with the site logo, a disclaimer–

    This platform does not monitor content. Each subscriber is responsible for the content of their own page. This platform merely provides a framework for the display of said content.

    And that would take care of the whole issue.

    1. NO! That would let right wing people have a forum!
      We NEED a moderation oversight board; otherwise individuals would have to take responsibility for their own actions.
      Of course, we cannot simply call the moderation oversight board an editorial board, because we would lose our 230 fig leaf.

  11. How about this?
    “Editor’s Note: We invite comments and request that they be civil and on-topic. We do not moderate or assume any responsibility for comments, which are owned by the readers who post them. Comments do not represent the views of Reason.com or Reason Foundation. We reserve the right to delete any comment for any reason at any time. Report abuses.”
    Notice how the second and fourth sentences directly contradict each other, but somehow it passes muster.

    1. To be fair they do have to delete a lot of spam.

      1. Only if one of us flags it – – – – – – – –

  12. Hell of a hot take from an ostensibly libertarian publication. I guess censorship’s not so bad as long as it’s private, and only a little bit, and the people being censored are really bad?

  13. I fixed the Facebook problem by deleting my account. It was so easy, too. Just a few clicks of the mouse.

  14. “BOTH SIDES!!” – t. Robbie

    “can’t please the anti-tech populists on the left”
    “Censor anyone who disagrees with me”

    “and the right,”
    “Stop censoring me because you disagree with me”

    Golly, wonder what the libertarian position is?

    1. Golly, wonder what the libertarian position is?

      Do not use social media apps if you disagree with their editorial policies. It’s not like anyone doesn’t know the socialists run Facebook.

      1. Socialists from the right ivy league schools and last names…a kid from Pittsburgh with say a last name like Rizzo who went to Penn State isn’t going anywhere in FB…wrong group.

  15. “Recently, small steps taken by the platform to disallow events that deliberately spread harmful information about COVID-19 provoked widespread cries of censorship.”

    Good God, are you ever credulous.

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  17. oh if only FB users were woke mom yenta types sharing their every little “who cares” gossip about this person on or that, or some stupid “joke”, or pictures from high school when they weighed less…or pumping their idiotic direct selling products. But alas people liked to talk politics and even act as journalists…that upset the elites. FB is just an online billboard…why not simple rules like ou can’t threaten anyone..and leave it at that? This is all about control of the narrative..libs hate freedom cause their don’t like to get questioned…Either FB acts to protect the 1st amendment or they should be broken up. Zuck pretty much screwed the folks who started this didn’t he? Then again he had Larry Summer protect him….wonder why?

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