You know what it’s like: you wait ages for Facebook to create its own independent supreme court to hear appeals against its censorship decisions, and then two come along at once.
As medieval Europe was split between two rival popes, Facebook’s high priests now have an antipope. The confusingly-named “Real Oversight Board”, launched only one month before the US presidential election, claims it will hold Facebook to account in the way the company’s actual Oversight Board cannot.
The Antiboard has a left-of-centre bent and includes some of Facebook’s most heavyweight critics, such as the philosopher of surveillance Shoshana Zuboff, early investor Roger McNamee, and Britain’s own Damian Collins MP.
“Ours is an emergency intervention, aimed at Mr Zuckerberg and Facebook employees,” said Zuboff on Wednesday. “We now approach the 59th minute of the 11th hour of this crisis… Facebook, America and the world look to you now for decisive action to protect democracy. History is watching.”
Realistically, the two boards are little alike. The real real Oversight Board is a rule-bound body granted the authority to judge, and potentially reverse, Facebook’s decisions. The Antiboard is an attention-grabbing pressure group that freely describes its methods as including “stunts”.
Evelyn Douek, a Harvard law lecturer who has studied the real Board extensively, said Facebook’s critics “should be wanting the Board to succeed, not undermining it”, and concluded: “There’s plenty to criticise about the Board’s current form… but undercutting it doesn’t help.”
This is an amazing group of people and I expect to learn a lot from and enjoy their commentary.But I think the name isn’t worth the lolz. Those who want more transparency and accountability from Fb should be wanting the Board to succeed, not undermining it. https://t.co/EZe7reqW2k
— evelyn douek (@evelyndouek) September 25, 2020
Nevertheless, Facebook appears to take it seriously. The company quickly rallied to lobby against it behind the scenes, dispatching head of governance Brent Harris to contact its donors and express his displeasure.
According to NBC News, Harris claimed that there were forces within Facebook that want the real Board to fail, citing the company’s famously Republican-friendly Washington, DC policy unit, which has been repeatedly accused of blocking censorship reforms. Harris denies having mentioned this.
At bottom, the Oversight Board is Facebook’s attempt to fix what an audit panel once described as a “crisis of public trust”. To achieve legitimacy, it must convince at least some critics that it is truly holding Facebook to account. The Antiboard threatens to delegitimise it before it gets the chance.
That might not be a credible threat if the Board were already operating. Yet almost two years after it was first announced, and despite originally being promised by the end of 2019, it will not be ready in time to issue rulings before polling day.
It was absent in June, when Facebook sparked an advertising boycott by declining to remove a post by President Donald Trump; absent in July, when millions of people were being sucked into the QAnon conspiracy theory; absent in August, when Facebook failed to act on a violence-inciting group in Kenosha, Wisconsin, which chief executive Mark Zuckerberg admitted had been an “operational mistake”.
Even if the Board had been up and running, it would not have been much help. Facebook has controversially chosen to limit its powers to cases where content has been removed, excluding cases where content has been left online. By design, it would have been unable to prevent this summer’s backlash.
Zuboff’s invocation of an “emergency” was not just election-year panic. The coronavirus pandemic has created an unprecedented role for postal voting, and ballots could take days or weeks to be counted. That would create a febrile interregnum in which President Trump is likely to dispute the results, potentially triggering civil unrest. Zuckerberg himself has said he is worried about this happening.
Perhaps by then, the real Oversight Board will finally be ready to make judgements. But will there still be time for it to make any difference?
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