There’s the company, the Board and now, the Real Board. Facebook Inc, under the scanner for how its flagship platform and other products (Instagram, WhatsApp) have been used to manipulate elections and spread misinformation, set up an Oversight Board in November last year. Its purpose, broadly: To provide more accountability by serving as a sort of final court of appeal over posts which have been flagged by users and removed by the algorithm and/or mediators. The severe limitations of this largely internal mechanism has led a group of civil society activists — including Facebook’s former head of election security — to form “The Real Facebook Oversight Board” to hold the company to account as the US elections take place.
The Real Board’s role will be to exercise, at best, moral pressure. This pressure is needed. Because, quite simply, Facebook hasn’t done enough. First, the company’s oversight board is little more than a sophisticated form of customer service — real oversight is almost impossible when those doing the overseeing draw their paychecks from the company they are meant to hold to account. Second, and more importantly, the Facebook Oversight Board will not be functional in time for the US presidential elections. Now, the Real Board is asking Facebook to institute measures against posts inciting violence, ban ads that mention election results before the official announcement, and label posts about the election results before the results as premature. These are reasonable demands. They may also be naive.
Quite a few of the members of the Real Board are leaders of the #StopHateForProfit campaign. But in Facebook’s case, it is important to understand that human monitoring of the sheer volume of data produced by users is next to impossible. And the algorithms that keep users hooked, like the profit motive, are amoral. Oversight, external or internal, will only make a real difference if it imposes pecuniary penalties, not PR ones, and forces a change in the goal of the algorithm itself.
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