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By Trisha Prabhu

“Hey, Trish – what’s the Facebook Oversight Board? How does it work?”

Hi there, and welcome back to another week of Ask Trish! I hope you’re all well and having a wonderful start to September.

Thank you so much to this week’s question-er for the fantastic question. While we’ve covered a number of interesting internet governance-related topics on Ask Trish (check out my recent post on A.I. rules and regulations!), we have not yet discussed The Meta Oversight Board – perhaps one of the most well-known and interesting internet governance experiments out there. Apart from being a really fascinating case study as to how social media companies like Meta figure out how to make the rules that govern their platforms, The Oversight Board is an important body to know and understand – you’ll see it in the news all the time. Why? (As we’ll discuss,) it’s tasked with tackling some very high-stakes issues.

What are those issues? Who’s on the Board? And how did it come to be, anyway? In this week’s post, I’ll answer all of those questions, giving y’all a brief first look at The Oversight Board. In the end, it’ll be up to you to form your opinions as to The Oversight Board and its role in governing our digital world. Sound good? Let’s get into it:

Let’s start with the basics: What, exactly, is the Oversight Board? The Oversight Board is an independent body that Facebook and Instagram users can appeal to if they disagree with a decision(s) made with regard to some content on Facebook and Instagram. Put more simply, if you have a concern as to Facebook or Instagram’s decision to leave some content up – or take some content down – you can appeal Facebook or Instagram’s decision to the Oversight Board. The Oversight Board is thus, in many ways, an arbiter of free expression on Meta’s social media platforms. It tries to do the tricky work of determining where to draw the line when it comes to potentially harmful or otherwise questionable content. As for how it works, it’s pretty simple: 1) users write an appeal to the Board, after which 2) the Board, much like the US Supreme Court, then picks several appeals to review/render judgment on; then, 3) the Board makes its decisions, which are announced publicly! (Like the Supreme Court, the Meta Oversight Board handles a very small percentage of the cases that people try to bring to it, so keep that in mind if you file an appeal.) Importantly, the Board’s decisions are binding – Facebook and Instagram must carry them out (even if they don’t like them). (Per Meta’s Oversight Board website, 16 out of 22 total rulings have been against Facebook and Instagram.) Keep in mind, though, that although Meta has agreed to abide by the board’s decisions, it is not a regulatory board like a court or government agency. For Meta, it’s a voluntary experiment in “governance.” The Board can also make general recommendations on Facebook’s policy or approach to specific types of content – but these are not binding. Facebook must respond to them, but it doesn’t have to follow The Board’s recommendation.

What about the history of the Board – how did it come to be? The Oversight Board was first announced by Meta CEO Mark Zuckerberg back in 2018. Zuckerberg had gotten the idea from a well-known Harvard Law School Professor, Noah Feldman. Feldman had proposed the idea as a sort of “Supreme Court” for Facebook – and Zuckerberg quickly latched onto it! It took nearly 2 years for the company to assemble the Board, and its members were only announced in May 2020. Today, there are 22 members from all over the world. Indeed, the Board counts as its members Tawakkol Karman, a Nobel Peace Prize Laureate from Yemen, Michael McConnell, the Director of the Constitutional Law Center at Stanford Law School, and Helle Thorning-Schmidt, the Former Prime Minister of Denmark. (I know…that’s some pretty cool people!) Meta has said that it intentionally tried to create a diverse board – one that would bring different perspectives and experiences to its evaluation of content on Facebook and Instagram.

Okay…now that you know a little about the Board, you might be wondering: what do you people think of it? How have folks evaluated the Board and its efficacy/performance? As you might guess, perspectives vary depending on who you talk to. Some folks argue that the Board is too slow-moving to effectively respond to harmful content. 

Consider, for instance, a relatively recent case involving a video of a speech made by Cambodian dictator Hun Sen that several Facebook users reported as inciting violence. Meta referred the video for review to the Oversight Board…but it ultimately took the Board 234 days to make its decision. This, some have argued, made the Board’s decision moot. Others argue that the Board has too little power – after all, Facebook can ignore its policy recommendations, even if it has to abide by its content decisions. But others feel that the Board’s transparency and independence give it a leg up on content decisions made by Meta within the company. If not for the Board, we might not have gotten a detailed explanation of how Meta thinks about content decisions or a systematic review of questionable content. And in that vein, lots of folks feel that at least the Board means that Meta has to think critically about the content on its platforms – and that’s a good thing. I’ll leave it to you to decide which of these points you think are most compelling.

As always, thank you so much for reading along! I hope that for many of you, this was an informative, valuable first look at The Meta Oversight Board. If you’re looking for answers to similar internet governance questions – or perhaps entirely unrelated questions – don’t hesitate to join the dialogue! Share any Internet-related questions, thoughts, or perspectives here (and your topic just might be featured in an upcoming TikTok/blog post!). Anything you’re experiencing is 100% valid (and there’s a very good chance that other folks in our community are experiencing the same things, too!). 💙Oh, and one last thing – don’t forget that if you see an Ask Trish video you like, you should give it a like and share it on your social media. Let’s spread the #AskTrish word this month!

Thanks, y’all! Have a great week,


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