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Facebook's first Oversight Board cases tackle hate speech and misinformation

Nudity and pandemic misinformation are also involved.
Jon Fingas, @jonfingas
December 1, 2020
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Facebook logo is seen displayed on a phone screen in this illustration photo taken on October 3, 2020. (Photo by Jakub Porzycki/NurPhoto via Getty Images)
Jakub Porzycki/NurPhoto via Getty Images

Facebook didn’t meet its goal of hearing Oversight Board cases before the US election, but it’s finally ready. The social media giant has revealed that the Board will tackle six appeal cases in its first outing, all of them prioritized based on their likelihood of affecting “lots of users around the world” through potential policy changes. Not surprisingly, four of them focus on hate speech and the ambiguities involved in sharing certain content.

The first case, for instance, comes after Facebook removed a post meant to single out former Malaysian Prime Minister Dr. Mahathir Mohamad’s “horrible words” about violence against the French. Other cases protested China’s treatment of Uyghur Muslims, cited Nazi propaganda as a warning against fascism and decried Azerbaijan’s reported crimes against Armenian churches.

The non-hate cases touch on sensitive topics, too. A Brazilian user is objecting to Facebook’s removal of posts showing breasts to raise cancer awareness. A French user, meanwhile, objected to Facebook pulling a post over COVID-19 misinformation. The poster claimed that France’s health regulator refused to authorize use of a hydroxychloroquine cocktail, and incorrectly claimed this was a “cure” for the disease. Facebook was concerned the post could lead to “offline harm.”

The Oversight Board will assign five-member panels to each of the cases, each of with at least one regionally relevant member. Public comments are open for each of the cases for a week, and there should be both a decision and a Facebook response within 90 days.

Simultaneously, Facebook added five trustees meant to ensure the independence of the board and keep it operating smoothly. These include freedom of religion advocate Kristina Arriaga, former ICANN Chairman Cherine Chalaby, US Export-Import Bank VP Wanda Felton, University of Oxford human rights institute leader Kate O’Regan and Yale Law School’s free speech scholar Robert Post.

The cases represent a crucial litmus test for the Board. Facebook was involved in the initial selection of members, but it has repeatedly stressed that it wants the overseer to have real power — enough that it can overrule CEO Mark Zuckerberg if necessary. The question, as you might imagine, is whether or not Facebook will make meaningful changes if any of the cases contradict its existing policy. It’s easy to reinstate individual posts, for instance, but it’s another to alter policies and allow large volumes of content that would otherwise be removed.

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