Can the Facebook Oversight Board Really Keep Mark Zuckerberg In Check?
In announcing the establishment of Facebook’s oversight board, Mark Zuckerberg said the independent body would “prevent the concentration of too much decision-making within our teams,” “create accountability,” and “provide assurance that these decisions are made in the best interests of our community and not for commercial reasons.” The company’s so-called “Supreme Court” immediately raised eyebrows: How independent would it really be? Would it be too restrictive or too indulgent? Was this just a way for Zuckerberg to punt uncomfortable decisions about the platform he created? Early rulings, including the most prominent, on Zuckerberg’s decision to ban Donald Trump following the January 6 insurrection, have hinted at answers. But overall, the central question about the committee—can it truly provide accountability over Facebook?—remains unresolved.
The authority of the board has only become less certain since September, when the Wall Street Journal reported that Facebook had lied to the group about its preferential treatment for prominent users. The company told the oversight board in June that it used its “XCheck” system, making it harder to enforce user guidelines on high-profile accounts, only in a “small number of decisions.” In reality, the Journal reported as part of its damning “Facebook Files” series, the “XCheck” system was applied to nearly six million accounts in 2020. A company spokesman defended the system and told the Journal at the time that it was truthful with the board. But clearly, the board doesn’t feel the same way.
In a searing report on Thursday, the board took Facebook to task for its lack of transparency about its cross-check system, among other things. “In the Board’s view, the team within Facebook tasked with providing information has not been fully forthcoming on cross-check,” wrote co-chairs Catalina Botero-Marino, Jamal Greene, Michael McConnell, and Helle Thorning-Schmidt. “On some occasions, Facebook failed to provide relevant information to the Board, while in other instances, the information it did provide was incomplete.”
Facebook—or whatever Zuckerberg’s going to start calling it to better reflect its transition to a “metaverse” company—has been under fire for weeks amid revelations that it was aware of the profound issues with its products but did little to solve them, instead seemingly burying internal research and pushing forward with plans for Instagram Kids, for example. But Zuckerberg has been defiant, insisting that the media reports have painted a misleading picture of the company’s research and that his platform remains a tool for good. This stubborn refusal to engage in even a little bit of honest self-reflection points to the need for the kind of accountability that the oversight board is seeking to provide. But, as the panel noted in its rebuke Thursday, that’s only possible if it Facebook plays along. “The credibility of the Oversight Board, our working relationship with Facebook, and our ability to render sound judgments on cases all depend on being able to trust that information provided to us by Facebook is accurate, comprehensive, and paints a full picture of the topic at hand,” the co-chairs wrote.
This, of course, presents something of a paradox: The board’s ability to conduct oversight depends on Facebook being forthcoming. But Facebook has consistently proven it won’t be forthcoming without oversight. The board needs to square that circle not only to rein in Facebook, but to ensure its own legitimacy. “Transparency is clearly an area where Facebook must urgently improve,” it wrote, “and we want to be part of the solution.”
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Published at Thu, 21 Oct 2021 17:58:17 +0000