Facebook whistleblower to meet with company’s oversight board: What you need to know – CNET

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Former Facebook product manager Frances Haugen testified before Congress in early October.

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Facebook whistleblower Frances Haugen will meet with the social network’s independent oversight board, the body established to review the company’s content moderation decisions and practices.

Haugen has rocketed into public awareness since revealing herself as the person behind a massive leak of documents that were used in a Wall Street Journal series in September that exposed how much the social network knows about its effects on users. In subsequent testimony to the US Senate in early October, Haugen alleged that Facebook’s products “harm children, stoke division and weaken our democracy.” She’s also expected to appear later in late October before a UK Parliament committee.

On Monday, Facebook’s oversight board announced that it, too, has invited Haugen to speak with board members “over the coming weeks.” In particular, the board said it wants to focus on the company’s Cross Check program, which exempts millions of high-profile users, such as celebrities and politicians, from the platform’s community standards — an apparent contradiction of public statements that its rules apply to everyone. The board had previously said it was looking into Cross Check after the Journal’s report.

“We are currently looking into whether Facebook has been fully forthcoming in its responses on its ‘cross-check’ system and will share our analysis in our first release of quarterly transparency reports later this month,” the board said in Monday’s announcement. “Facebook has also said it will ask the Board to review how cross-check can be improved and to offer recommendations.”

Critics of Facebook, which was used by Russia to influence the 2016 presidential election, say the company doesn’t take its responsibility seriously enough and don’t believe the oversight board moves fast enough or goes far enough. A group of vocal critics has set up a shadow organization, which it calls the Real Facebook Oversight Board.

To date, the board’s highest-profile action was upholding Facebook’s suspension of former President Donald Trump’s Facebook and Instagram accounts. In May, the board said the social network was justified in suspending Trump amid concerns he could foment more violence after the deadly Capitol Hill riot on Jan. 6.

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Here’s what you need to know about Facebook’s oversight board:

What are the board’s responsibilities?

Let’s get something straight: The oversight board doesn’t do the same job as content moderators, who make decisions on whether individual posts to Facebook comply with the social network’s rules. The board exists to support the “right to free expression” of Facebook’s nearly 3 billion users.  

The board functions a lot like a court, which isn’t surprising given that a Harvard law professor came up with the idea. Users who believe content moderators have removed their posts improperly can appeal to the board for a second opinion. If the board sides with the user, Facebook must restore the post. Facebook can also refer cases to the board. 

The oversight board can also make suggestions for changes to Facebook’s policies. Over time, those recommendations could affect what users are allowed to post, which could make content moderation easier. 

Why does Facebook want an oversight board? 

Facebook gets criticized by just about everybody for just about every decision it makes. Conservatives say the company and the rest of Silicon Valley are biased against their views. They point to the suspensions of Trump and right-wing extremist Alex Jones.

The social network doesn’t get much love from progressives, either. They complain Facebook has become a toxic swamp of racist, sexist and misleading speech. Some progressive groups underlined their concerns in summer 2020 by calling on companies to avoid advertising on Facebook and publicizing the boycott with the hashtag #StopHateForProfit.

The oversight board can help Facebook deal with those complaints while lending credibility to the social network’s community standards, a code of conduct that prohibits hate speech, child nudity and a host of other offensive content. By letting an independent board guide decisions about this content, Facebook hopes it will develop a more consistent application of its rules, which in the past have generated complaints for appearing arbitrary. 

One example: Facebook’s 2016 removal of an iconic Vietnam War photo that shows a naked girl fleeing a napalm attack. The company defended the removal, saying the Pulitzer Prize winning image violated its rules on child nudity. Facebook reversed its decision shortly afterward as global criticism mounted about the removal of a vital historical image. 

Why isn’t the board part of Facebook? 

It’s no secret that Facebook has a trust problem. Regulators, politicians and the public all question whether the decisions the company makes serve its users or itself. Making the board independent of Facebook should, the company reckons, give people confidence that its decisions are being made on the merits of the situation, not on the basis of the company’s interests. 

Who has Facebook chosen to be on this board?

In spring 2020, Facebook named the first 20 members of the board, a lineup that includes former judges and current lawyers, professors and journalists. It also includes a former prime minister and a Nobel Peace Prize winner. The board can be expanded to 40 people. The members have lived in nearly 30 countries and speak almost as many languages. About a quarter come from the US and Canada.

Serving on the board is a part-time job, with members paid through a multimillion-dollar trust. Board members will serve a three-year term. The board will have the power to select future members. It hears cases in panels of five members chosen at random. 

Trump and conservatives were unhappy with the makeup of the board, which they saw as too liberal, according to The New Yorker. The former president even called CEO Mark Zuckerberg to express this sentiment, but Facebook didn’t change the board members.

Is the board really independent if Facebook is paying it?

If you’re skeptical, we hear you. Facebook doesn’t have a great reputation for transparency.

That said, the charter establishing the board provides details of the efforts Facebook is taking to ensure the board’s independence. For example, the board isn’t a subsidiary of Facebook. It’s a separate entity with its own headquarters and staff. It maintains its own website (in 18 languages, if you count US and UK English separately) and its own Twitter account.

Still, when it comes to money, the board is indirectly funded by Facebook through a trust. Facebook is funding the trust to the tune of $130 million, which it estimates will cover years of expenses. 

Facebook says it will abide by the board’s decisions even in cases when it disagrees with a judgment. (The social network says the only exceptions would be decisions that would force it to violate the law, an unlikely occurrence given the legal background of many board members.)

The board will also try to keep Facebook accountable, publishing an annual report that’ll include a review of Facebook’s actions as a result of its decisions. 

Read more: Here’s how you can submit an appeal to Facebook’s oversight board.

Tell me more about the Trump decision. 

Sure. The board decided in May that Facebook was justified in suspending Trump out of concern the former president could incite violence after he whipped up supporters as Congress gathered to certify Joe Biden’s election. The decision, however, wasn’t a blanket endorsement of Facebook’s action, with the board taking exception to the open-ended nature of the penalty. The board said Facebook should reconsider the length of time that Trump was barred, and complete its review within six months. 

The former president was kicked off Facebook and its Instagram photo-sharing service in the wake of the Jan. 6 Capitol Hill riot. Other social networks, including Twitter, also took action against Trump, who used their services to fan doubt over the legitimacy of the 2020 presidential election.

The case highlighted the difficult balance that private social media companies need to strike when handling political speech by public figures. Zuckerberg made the decision to ban Trump, who was still in office at the time, saying the risks of allowing Trump to continue posting were “simply too great,” the Facebook boss said at the time.

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