Facebook Oversight Board Reverses Moderation Decisions

image credit: Elena Lacey, Getty Images

published by Chand Bellur
January 28, 2021 at 7:32 p.m.
  • Facebook’s recently assembled oversight board seeks to adjudicate important and controversial moderation decisions.
  • The board’s recent rulings garnered criticism from human rights organizations, as some decisions allegedly enable ethnic cleansing in Myanmar.
  • Facebook’s oversight board will soon rule on whether to reinstate Donald Trump’s account, after his ban for spreading misinformation and encouraging an unprecedented insurrection against the United States government.
  • Critics contend that Facebook’s board seeks to draw attention and blame for moderation away from Mark Zuckerberg and Sheryl Sandberg.

Facebook’s “Supreme Court” Restores Four Removed Posts

Much like our nation has a Supreme Court to adjudicate important cases escalated through the legal system, Facebook assembled a similar apparatus to evaluate contentious posts. The Facebook oversight board, composed of top leaders and legal experts, rules on past moderation decisions, often reinstating previously removed content.

The oversight board recently ruled to restore four incendiary posts removed by Facebook moderators. The posts ranged from medical misinformation to potentially dangerous Islamophobia in a region known for ethnic cleansing.

One restored post criticized the French government for withholding a cure for COVID-19. The post claimed that the anti-malaria drug hydroxychloroquine cured the pandemic virus. Although the drug is known to be ineffective against SARS-COV-2, Facebook’s oversight board felt the content was more about political criticism than scientific misinformation.

The most contentious case involves alleged hate speech against Muslims in a region known for horrendous ethnic cleansing. Although Facebook endures criticism for enabling genocide in Myanmar, its oversight board decided to let a possibly Islamophobic post remain. 

The post claims that Muslims are psychologically inferior. The board agreed that the post was insulting; however, they felt it didn’t directly advocate violence.

The horrendous ethnic cleansing of Rohinga Muslims in Myanmar involves brutal tactics, such as the violent and deadly sexual assault of children. Although the UN, United States, and numerous human rights groups declared military campaigns in Myanmar constitute “ethnic cleansing”, Facebook continues to allow posts targeted toward Myanmar audiences that denigrate Muslims. Such content could encourage support for ongoing campaigns against Rohingya Muslims in the region.

Facebook Oversight Board Members

First conceived in late 2018, Facebook’s oversight board is the ultimate arbitrator on the popular social media platform. The panel, comprised of a diverse group of leaders, legal experts, activists, and human rights advocates, serves to moderate contentious content.

The following twenty individuals comprise Facebook’s oversight committee:

  • Afia Asantewaa Asare-Kyei (human rights lawyer)
  • Alan Rusbridger (journalist)
  • András Sajó (law scholar)
  • Catalina Botero Marino (law professor)
  • Emi Palmor (former director-general of the Israeli Justice Ministry)
  • Endy Bayuni (journalist)
  • Evelyn Aswad (law professor)
  • Helle Thorning-Schmidt (former prime minister of Denmark)
  • Jamal Greene (law professor)
  • John Samples (VP of Cato Institute)
  • Julie Owono (executive director of Internet Sans Frontieres)
  • Katherine Chen (statistics and public relations professor)
  • Maina Kiai (human rights activist)
  • Michael McConnell (law professor)
  • Nicolas Suzor (associate law professor)
  • Nighat Dad (Internet activist)
  • Pamela S. Karlan (US Supreme Court advocate)
  • Ronaldo Lemos (lawyer)
  • Sudhir Krishnaswamy (law school vice-chancellor)
  • Tawakkol Karman (human rights activist)

In addition to moderating a few cases presented to the board, the judgments serve to improve transparency. Justifications of decisions help further define Facebook’s content policies.

Mounting Criticism of Facebook Oversight Board

Even before Facebook’s oversight committee ruled on the Myanmar post, opposition mounted against alleged Islamophobia on the social media platform. Civil rights group Muslim Advocates contends that Facebook is complicit in genocide against Rohingya Muslims in Myanmar. As spokesperson Eric Naing stated:

“Facebook’s Oversight Board bent over backwards to excuse hate in Myanmar—a country where Facebook has been complicit in a genocide against Muslims. It’s impossible to square Mark Zuckerberg’s claim that Facebook does not profit from hate with the board’s decision to protect a post showing images of a dead Muslim child with a caption stating that ‘Muslims have something wrong in their mindset.’ It is clear that the Oversight Board is here to launder responsibility for Zuckerberg and Sheryl Sandberg. Instead of taking meaningful action to curb dangerous hate speech on the platform, Facebook punted responsibility to a third party board that used laughable technicalities to protect anti-Muslim hate content that contributes to genocide.” 

Haphazard, Kafkaesque moderation of end-users is another criticism leveled at the social media giant. Facebook permanently bans user accounts for small infractions without consideration from the board. With a flurry of removals and bans, the committee only examined five cases so far.

Research shows that Facebook bans average users for small indiscretions. Lucrative firebrands, like Donald Trump, can get away with far more than the marginally-profitable end-user.

When Facebook bans the average user, it doesn’t provide a reason. Doing so opens up possible liabilities, although section 230 of the Communications Decency Act allows tech corporations to moderate as they see fit. After all, it’s their platform. Unfortunately, they have the power to alter behavior on a massive scale. The recent and historic Capitol insurrection was due, in large part, to misinformation regarding election fraud propagated over social media.

Facebook banned one user for sending a partially nude image to a friend via Facebook Messenger. The content didn’t appear on a public Facebook post; however, the user believes this is why he faced banishment. Another user reports being unable to complete work after being temporarily banned on Facebook for posting information about breast cancer awareness. Facebook’s oversight board didn’t address these cases.

Will Facebook Reinstate Donald Trump’s Account?

After a historic insurrection at the Capitol, Twitter quickly and permanently banned Donald Trump from the platform. Trump accounted for an estimated $2 billion of the social media company’s revenues. The move drastically hurt Twitter; however, given the severity of the situation, many felt Trump went too far.

YouTube and Facebook took time to mull over the situation after a mob attempted to overthrow the US government. Both did the least to rein in the United States’ former President, who incited the insurrection.

YouTube didn’t ban Donald Trump’s channel. Instead, it forbade him from posting new content for at least seven days. Trump proxies, such as Newsmax and One America News, continue to operate and expand. Older videos, including one where Trump denies responsibility for the insurrection, remain on his channel, with 2.79 million subscribers.

Facebook took a similar tactic, suspending Trump’s account at least for the duration of his presidency. Although his account remains suspended, the oversight board is reviewing the matter. It will take up to 90 days to reach a final decision. 

Prolonging the final verdict on Trump gives time for the insurrection to blow over. Assuming that peace persists in America, Facebook could very well reinstate Trump with little scrutiny.

Trump remains a valuable property for social media. With advertising-based business models, these corporations rely on eyeballs to generate revenues. Beyond Trump’s dedicated core of supporters, others view his content to stay informed or for the shock value. Facebook lost $33.8 billion in market cap following its ban on Trump. The social media company could reinstate the former president in a move to increase revenues.

Trump is too valuable a social media commodity to face a permanent ban. The fact that it’s temporary implies that Facebook will likely restore his account. Trump can be considered historically significant, and therefore, standard rules don’t apply. The opaque process, now slightly more transparent due to the board, allows for exceptions. Given that Trump no longer wields direct political power, Facebook will likely return his megaphone, perhaps after the public loses interest in the insurrection. Continued civil unrest could jeopardize his return, and even worse, the future of this nation.

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