Facebook critics launch ‘Real Facebook Oversight Board’

Organisation formed as an ‘emergency response’ to address the ‘immediate risk’ posed by Facebook’s role in the US election

A coalition of Facebook’s most vocal critics is demanding that the social media giant takes comprehensive action to stop its platform being used to incite violence or spread misleading information ahead of next month’s US presidential election.

Dubbed the “Real Facebook Oversight Board”, the group has been formed specifically to analyse and criticise the platform’s role in the presidential election on 3 November.

Described by members as “an emergency intervention”, the activist-led board is calling on Facebook to take “three meaningful measures to protect this election and preserve our democracy”.

The first measure is for Facebook to enforce its own policies and remove posts inciting violence, whether made by ordinary citizens, public figures or elected officials.

“They do have terms of service, but what use are terms of service if they don’t serve any purpose?” said Jonathan Greenblatt, CEO of the Anti-Defamation League (ADL) during the board’s inaugural press conference on 30 September. “We’ve seen Facebook groups literally utilised this summer to organise violent actions on the streets and undermine Black Lives Matter protests.

“The Kenosha Guards literally planned, in broad daylight on Facebook groups, the actions that led to Kyle Rittenhouse showing up fully armed with a semi-automatic weapon and murdering two people. Any other company, any other media business, would have shut this down long ago. The fact that Facebook doesn’t enforce its own terms of service, at best, is inexplicable. At worst, it could be illegal.”

The other two measures the board is calling for are a ban on all paid advertising that mentions results of the presidential election until one candidate is emphatically declared president-elect and the other concedes, and for Facebook to label all organic posts about the election result as “untrue and premature” until this threshold is met.

Jessica Gonzalez, co-CEO of Free Press and member of the board, said that although there is much more Facebook could be doing, these specific demands have been put forward because “we’ve learned that if we’re not really specific with Facebook, they will claim that they are already doing what we’re asking them to do”.

Facebook’s own Oversight Board, which was originally proposed by CEO Mark Zuckerberg in 2018, was created in response to a series of high-profile moderation issues in recent years, including Facebook’s failure to combat hate speech against Rohingya and other Muslims in Myanmar and disinformation being spread on its platform during elections.

Facebook announced the first 20 members of its board in May 2020, but will only be “opening its doors to business” in mid-October, just weeks before the US presidential election.

A Facebook company spokesperson said: “We ran a year-long global consultation to set up the Oversight Board as a long-lasting institution that will provide binding, independent oversight over some of our hardest content decisions. The members were selected for their deep experience in a diverse range of issues.

“This new effort is mostly long-time critics creating a new channel for existing criticisms. We look forward to seeing the Facebook Oversight Board in action in mid- to late October.”

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According to Shoshana Zuboff, author of The age of surveillance capitalism: the fight for a human future at the new frontier of power, the Real Facebook Oversight Board will continue to monitor Facebook’s activity after the election, and is ready to issue more demands “as the situation evolves”.

Zuboff said that while many of the experts selected to serve on Facebook’s Oversight Board are “fine people, it is fundamentally illegitimate for Facebook as a corporation to be constructing and funding its own oversight board”.

She added: “That can only happen in a world where we have a void in the rule of law, where do not yet have the legal frameworks and institutions in place that should provide the oversight that this highly consequential corporation requires.”

Derrick Johnson, president of the National Association for the Advancement of Coloured People (NAACP), the US’s oldest civil liberties organisation, said Facebook poses an “imminent threat to black and minority votes and lives”.

“We have had many conversations with Facebook and they have refused to address basic issues of keeping people safe and protecting our democracy,” he said. “In the aftermath of the presidential debate – where the president of this nation made a direct appeal to a white supremacist group while at the exact same time refusing to denounce white supremacy – I can only imagine the activity that is taking place on social media platforms like Facebook today.”

On 28 September, Channel 4 News revealed that the data of 3.5 million black Americans was stored and categorised as “Deterrence” by the 2016 Trump campaign (meaning they were voters that the campaign wanted to stay at home), which then targeted them with tailored ads through Facebook and other platforms.

The Real Facebook Oversight Board’s members also include: Filipino American investigative journalist Maria Ressa; Facebook’s former head of elections integrity operations for political advertising, Yael Eisenstat; Digital Sistas founder Shireen Mitchell; Color of Change president Rashad Robinson; ex-Facebook investor and venture capitalist Roger McNamee; and Safiya Noble, author of Algorithms of oppression and an associate professor at the University of California, Los Angeles.

The board is spearheaded by The Citizens, an advocacy group set up by investigative journalist Carole Cadwalladr, who uncovered the Cambridge Analytica scandal in the UK in 2018.

Computer Weekly submitted questions to the group about how ordinary people bearing the brunt of political and economic disempowerment can challenge Facebook and other social media companies, as well as what forms of collective action they could take together, but had received no response by the time of publication.

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