Facebook’s Content Oversight Board Takes on First Cases

It’s been a long time coming, and there’s a lot riding on its success, or failure as it may be. But today, Facebook has outlined the first cases that have been chosen by its new, independent Content Oversight Board for assessment outside of Facebook’s moderation teams.

Facebook’s Oversight Board is an independent panel of experts which users can appeal to if they disagree with decisions Facebook has made about their content on Facebook or Instagram. The hope is that this will provide a whole new way for Facebook to manage difficult content decisions, taking the final rulings out of its hands and providing a broader depth of insight and nuance to such calls.

That could mean that things like borderline hate speech, which Facebook may have ruled is fine, could be overruled by the Oversight Board, and from that, Facebook may be forced to re-assess its policies in order to stop the same in future. 

Maybe. Facebook isn’t beholden to the Oversight Board in making changes to its content policies, only on individual cases, but the Board can make recommendations to change its rules, which Facebook will consider.

The Oversight Board is starting with a breadth of cases relating to nudity, hate speech and misinformation:

  • A case concerning comments made by a public figure about violence against French people.
  • A case concerning a photo of a deceased child and commentary on China’s treatment of Uyghur Muslims.
  • A case concerning historical photos purportedly showing churches in Baku and a caption indicating disdain for Azerbaijani people and support for Armenia in the Nagorno-Karabakh dispute.
  • A case concerning photos with nudity related to breast cancer symptoms.
  • A case concerning a post which contained an alleged quote from Joseph Goebbels, the Reich Minister of Propaganda in Nazi Germany.
  • A case concerning a post in a Group claiming hydroxychloroquine and azithromycin is a cure for COVID-19 and criticizing the French government’s response to COVID-19.

All of these cases relate to some of the more commonly criticized concerns with Facebook’s content approach, and it’ll be interesting to see how Facebook takes on the various recommendations from the Board, and whether that also includes potential consideration for updates to its rules.

Facebook’s perceived inaction on hate speech became a key focus in back in May, when US President Donald Trump shared this comment on the #BlackLivesMatter protests:

Many saw this as advocating violence, with the historical reference a concern for many civil rights groups. That then prompted activists to organize a boycott of Facebook ads in July, which reportedly cost Facebook millions in revenue.

Facebook met with civil rights leaders at the time, and referred to its coming Oversight Board as a key element in its approach to such moving forward. If Facebook made the wrong call, the Oversight Board would step in and correct it. 

So goes the theory, and definitely having a third-part group scrutinizing such rulings is a potentially important step. But we’ll have to wait and see just how the Board operates, and what influence they actually have over Facebook, before we can consider it a success.

As such, this is a key development in Facebook’s approach to content, and could have a big impact. Or it could be minor change. We won’t know till we see what happens, and after almost two years of development, we’re now at that next stage.

And with a new US President coming in, who’s likely to be less lenient on Facebook and other social platforms over their approach to free speech, this could be the start of a big shift. There are obviously limits on the amount of cases the Board can review, but if it starts making policy recommendations, and they’re adopted by The Social Network, that could see a gradual shift in tone within the app.  

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