Facebook wants ‘other companies’ to use the Oversight Board, too

Competing platforms have little incentive to do so.

Chip Somodevilla via Getty Images

Facebook created the Oversight Board to help solve its most difficult content moderation decisions. But though the body is often referred to as “Facebook’s Supreme Court,” Facebook executives have suggested that some of their peers could one day benefit from the board’s services, too.

Such a move would have obvious benefits for Facebook, which would be able to claim their experiment with self regulation was so successful that their competitors chose to join in. But for now, competing platforms have little incentive (and seemingly little interest) in doing so.

The Oversight Board and ‘other companies’

In a 2019 letter outlining “Facebook’s commitment to the Oversight Board,” Mark Zuckerberg hinted that the board’s purview could one day extend beyond just Facebook. “We expect the board will only hear a small number of cases at first, but over time we hope it will expand its scope and potentially include more companies across the industry as well,” he wrote.

The comment drew little attention at the time, but the idea has recently resurfaced. Speaking at a Financial Times event following the board’s decision regarding Donald Trump’s suspension, Facebook’s VP of Global Affairs Nick Clegg also raised the prospect of an industry-wide Oversight Board. “Who knows, maybe in the future it could either be the germ of an idea that is then taken up in statutory regulation or it could be something that could operate for more companies than just for Facebook,” he said. “I would love to imagine [that] in five years time or so the Oversight Board is able to operate in a way similar to many other social media companies who face very similar dilemmas to us.”

When asked about Clegg’s remarks, Twitter and YouTube declined to comment. Reddit didn’t respond to a request for comment.

For now, the Oversight Board’s charter makes no mention of companies other than Facebook. And no other social media company has publicly expressed any interest in offloading its own content moderation decisions to them. But it’s not just Facebook executives who want to expand the board's purview. At least one Oversight Board official has also raised the idea as a possibility. Speaking at SXSW, public policy manager Rachel Wolbers said the organization dislikes the moniker Facebook Oversight Board. “That really is because we hope that we’re going to do such a great job that other companies might want our help,” she said.

It’s unclear how this proposal would even work. The board is entirely funded by Facebook, which was also deeply involved with crafting its rules and choosing its members. Getting other companies involved would certainly be vindicating for Facebook, as it would make the board seem more legitimate, and give the company ammunition against critics. It would also help the Oversight Board seem more independent, as it could be the “Supreme Court” for all of social media, not just Facebook.

But there are few obvious benefits for competing platforms, which seem unlikely to want to join in Facebook’s attempt at self regulation. "I think the big platforms will continue to watch their peer companies on enforcement decisions, but we’re a way off from YouTube and Twitter pledging to abide by the Facebook Oversight Board,” says Nu Wexler, a policy communications consultant and former spokesman for Facebook, Google and Twitter. “They all have different rules and they like their autonomy.”

There are more practical limitations, too. Not only would the board be required to learn the nuances of each company’s policies, it would likely need to develop a separate framework for each platform, as well as systems to manage user appeals and public comments from each. More board members and support staff would likely be needed, too. (The board currently has 20 members with plans to expand to 40 just to cover Facebook appeals.)

A spokesperson for the Oversight Board said any such plans are in the distant future. “The Oversight Board was created to test a model for online governance that could potentially serve other services over the long term, but our sole focus right now is on Facebook and Instagram,” said the board’s head of communications Dex Hunter-Torricke. “Content moderation is a huge challenge for many platforms, and the Oversight Board believes fewer highly consequential decisions should be made by companies alone. I expect the learnings that come from the Board over the next few years may help other companies in figuring out their approaches to dealing with online content.”

Social media and self-regulation

Still, there is at least some precedent for such an idea. Industries have long created their own regulatory bodies to set rules and norms. In the gaming industry, the Entertainment Software Rating Board, or ESRB, was formed in the early ‘90s and created the game-rating system that’s widely used today around the world. The group calls itself “one of the country's finest examples of industry self-regulation.” Similar bodies exist for the recording, television and film industry.

When it comes to social media platforms, companies have banded together in the past on specific issues, such as content related to terrorism. Facebook and Twitter and YouTube have collaborated for years via the Global Internet Forum to Counter Terror (GIFCT), which was formed to prevent terrorist content from spreading on social media. Similarly, social media companies have shared research when it comes to election interference, disinformation campaigns and platform manipulation.

But bringing other platforms into Facebook’s Oversight Board experiment would be a different matter. For one, the mere existence of the board is still controversial. While some have applauded its efforts to try to force Facebook to follow its own rules, there are still real questions about how much influence it has. Its biggest critics have said it amounts to little more than a way for Facebook to avoid taking responsibility for its decisions and fixing its most glaring problems.

“I'm skeptical that the Oversight Board is going to get to that place where they can actually make recommendations in a credible way for other platforms,” Jessica Gonzalez, co-CEO of the Free Press Institute and member of the “Real Facebook Oversight Board,” told Engadget. “I just don't think this body is equipped to make decisions for the whole field.”

For Gonzalez, the issue goes beyond the criticisms of Facebook. While the board has recruited “brilliant people,” she said they are not representative of the communities most affected by the social media platform’s policies. “There's not a ton of grassroots perspective being held there. We have to have racial diversity, we have to have socio-economic diversity. And we actually have to hear from communities about how these decisions are impacting them.”

Another issue raised by critics is that a Facebook-created “Oversight Board” isn’t a substitute for actual government regulation.

“Facebook and other social media platforms with the same business model will find ways to highlight divisive content to drive advertising revenues,” New Jersey Congressman Frank Pallone wrote in a statement following the Oversight Board’s decision on Trump’s suspension. “Every day, Facebook is amplifying and promoting disinformation and misinformation, and the structure and rules governing its oversight board generally seem to ignore this disturbing reality. It’s clear that real accountability will only come with legislative action.”