After almost two years of development, Facebook's new Oversight Board, a group of experts in a range of fields that will help the platform make more informed decisions on what should and should not be allowed to be shared across its network, now looks set to begin hearing cases ahead of the US Election in November, after initially saying that it would not be ready in time.
Back in July, in response to rising controversy around a post from US President Donald Trump, the Oversight Board said that:
We understand many people are eager for the Board to officially begin our task of providing independent oversight of Facebook’s content decisions. We share this urgency, but the Board won’t be operational until late Fall.— Oversight Board (@OversightBoard) July 7, 2020
The post in question at the time was this one, which many believe provoked increased tensions within the community during the #BlackLivesMatter protests.
This specific post was also the key driver behind the Facebook advertiser boycott in July, which has lead to ongoing questions about Facebook's capacity to make content decisions.
Trump also posted the same comments to Twitter, which did take action, flagging the tweets for violating its rules against glorifying violence, and that created an immediate inflection point, showing that while Twitter was willing to make the tough call, Facebook, which has many more users, and is much more influential, was, for whatever reason, not willing to take that extra step
In defending its decision, Facebook has repeatedly referred to the coming Oversight Board as a means to give it more insight and capacity to make better calls in such cases. But again, Facebook's been developing the Board since January 2019, and with the US Election fast approaching, which will likely see Facebook once again have to make tough decisions on should and should not be allowed on its platform, many have called for it to get the Oversight Board up and running now, ahead of the campaign peak.
Evidently, Facebook has heard those requests.
As per the Oversight Board:
"We are currently testing the newly deployed technical systems that will allow users to appeal and the Board to review cases. Assuming those tests go to plan, we expect to open user appeals in mid to late October.”
It does seem like it's taken a very long time to get the process moving, with the initial appointments to the group announced back in May. Facebook says that it's had to train board members and set up the systems in order to enable them to hear cases. But of all the times were Facebook needs such a mechanism in place, the 2020 US Election seems like the peak, the time where its decisions will be increasingly consequential - and again potentially divisive.
As such, it's good to see Facebook looking to get the board in place quickly. How much impact the board will have in the end is hard to say - while Facebook has said that it will commit to actioning the board's recommendations in specific cases, Facebook won't be obliged to make subsequent policy changes based on the same findings.
"Facebook is committed to implementing the board’s decision on individual pieces of content within seven days, as outlined in the bylaws. Facebook will also assess the technical and operational feasibility of applying the decision to identical content with parallel context, as explained in the bylaws."
Still, that should mean that in cases like the above post, the Oversight Board, which is made up of a diverse range of experts, will weigh in and help Facebook make a call.
The Oversight Board says that it expects to decide on each case, and for Facebook to have acted on its decisions, within a maximum of 90 days.
There are various concerns around the US election, with President Trump once again refusing to assure a peaceful transfer of power, in the case of him losing the poll, at a press conference this week.
The concern is that, if Trump loses, he could use social networks to incite violence among his supporter base by questioning the official result. Of course, that's dependent on Trump losing in the first place, but this is just one of the scenarios where Facebook could be put in a difficult position in deciding what to allow, and what to take action on, with respect to political speech.
The Oversight Board will improve its capacity on this front, and could be a key tool in Facebook's process of improving its decision making, expanding its perspective beyond the company as it seeks to find the right balance.