Inside Meta’s Oversight Board: Complaints that review blocked for some Facebook censorship decisions

The co-chair of the independent board responsible for judging Facebook’s censorship decision says the company is preventing it from reviewing restrictions on the distribution of posts and other measures that are central to censorship on the platform.

Facebook’s parent company, Meta, allows the board to review decisions involving posts, but does not allow the board to review the distribution of content, actions taken against individual accounts or fact checking, says Michael McConnell, co-chair of Meta’s supervisory board.

The board is tasked with reviewing Meta’s “content moderation”, which Mr. McConnell described it as a synonym for censorship.

Mr. McConnell, a former federal judge, said the 20-member board has increased since it began work in 2020 and that he wants the portfolio to be further expanded.

“I bet I speak for everyone: It’s something we should be able to look at because a downgrade of the range may not be total silence, but it’s in the same family,” said Mr. McConnell in an interview. “There are the same reasons why it would make sense to have independent oversight of it.”

Downgrading the reach of content is the key to Facebook’s strategy of limiting speech that it dislikes.

In one of the most published examples, Twitter blocked links to reports from the New York Post and others about emails and documents found on Hunter Biden’s laptop. The restrictions effectively stopped the spread of news that was potentially harmful to President Biden ahead of the 2020 election.

Facebook strangled dissemination of the news and praised its fact-checking program.

Whether Meta will allow the Board of Supervisors to review downgraded content reach on Facebook and Instagram is an open question. Meta declined to comment on the record for this article.

The Board’s of laws states that its operations “will grow and change”, but Meta largely demands the board’s access. Last year, Facebook expanded the extent of what it allowed the Supervisory Board to review by allowing it to review the content that remained on the company’s platforms in addition to appeals for content that was demolished.

Much of the board’s understanding of Facebook’s operations comes from external sources. Mr McConnell said he found out that Facebook was restructuring its Meta business from a newspaper, and he said he had not spoken to Meta’s CEO Mark Zuckerberg since joining the board.

The two complaints he hears most about Facebook are closing accounts for arbitrary reasons and fact-checking on the platform, he said.

Mr McConnell said the board is negotiating with Meta to set limits on what it can review. He said these negotiations often include Meta’s Vice Presidents Nick Clegg, a former British Deputy Prime Minister and leader of Britain’s Liberal Democrats, and Brent Harris, a California lawyer known for advocating for climate change. As Meta’s Head of Global Affairs, he helped create the Board of Supervisors.

Whether restrictions on the scope of digital content violate the spirit of free speech in America is also a hot topic in congressional debates on Internet regulation.

The board’s most prominent decision to date in the United States is its review of Facebook’s ban on former President Donald Trump. The board upheld the ban in May but urged the company to conduct a further review because, according to the board, an indefinite suspension was inappropriate.

Facebook answered by extending Trump’s ban to at least 2023.

Mr McConnell said Facebook’s two-year timeline for eventually allowing Trump to return is an important difference from platforms that have implemented permanent and indefinite bans. Twitter has permanently banned Trump, and Google-owned YouTube has not defined a specific timeline to allow the former president to return.

In addition to efforts to get Facebook and Instagram to implement their decisions, the board works to gain support from users and stakeholders around the world. The Board of Supervisors’ spokesman Dex Hunter-Torricke said he visited the Spanish embassy in Washington and had talks with EU representatives about speeches and content moderation.

“We are an electrician swimming in a much larger stream where there are lots of other people trying to find solutions to problems with meta and content moderation,” said Hunter-Torricke. “And our value in many cases will be to lift the hood on Facebook and Instagram in each case, find out information about the company, diagnose these problems and then also let other actors get involved.”

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