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Home >Opinion >Columns >Facebook Inc’s oversight board should push for transparency

Facebook Inc’s oversight board should push for transparency

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Mark Zuckerberg needs to ensure that oversight serves its purpose

The company remains too secretive about matters of public concern

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Boards are notorious for group-think and spinelessness. In Facebook’s case, a board could make a difference. Documents reported by The Wall Street Journal earlier this week revealed a secret system at Facebook to coddle the posts of politicians and celebrities, as well as internal stats on the full extent of psychological harm that Instagram causes teen girls. Both issues were long suspected. Both are now backed by startling evidence.

Boards are notorious for group-think and spinelessness. In Facebook’s case, a board could make a difference. Documents reported by The Wall Street Journal earlier this week revealed a secret system at Facebook to coddle the posts of politicians and celebrities, as well as internal stats on the full extent of psychological harm that Instagram causes teen girls. Both issues were long suspected. Both are now backed by startling evidence.

What they boil down to is this: Facebook, like the oil and tobacco companies of years ago, has been far too secretive about the impact of its products on human life.

What they boil down to is this: Facebook, like the oil and tobacco companies of years ago, has been far too secretive about the impact of its products on human life.

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When US Senators asked Facebook last month about Instagram’s impact on teen mental health, the company did not answer. The reason can perhaps be traced to how bad its internal stats looked: A third of teenage girls who already felt negatively about their bodies felt worse when they went on Instagram, according to The Wall Street Journal, which cited documents from a person seeking federal whistle-blower protection. Facebook has also deflected public questioning of XCheck, the internal system that allowed more than 5 million elite users like celebrities and politicians to skirt Facebook’s content rules.

On one hand, Facebook could see this as just another public relations nightmare that will eventually blow over, barely denting its growth in users and revenue. After all, with regulators focused on Facebook’s corporate behaviour and governments on social media more broadly, who will actually do anything about Facebook’s chronic secrecy? One party could be Facebook’s Oversight Board.

This is the 20-member panel of academics, former politicians and activists that Facebook set up in 2019 to help make it more accountable for the way it moderates content on the site, in a unique experiment in corporate governance. Sometimes described as a “Supreme Court of Facebook", the board reviews the site’s higher-profile rulings on content, such as the decision to indefinitely ban former US President Donald Trump, which the board overturned and openly criticized. Noah Feldman, a contributing columnist for Bloomberg Opinion, is an advisor to Facebook and helped set up the board.

If you’ve already heard of the Oversight Board, you may have read unflattering assessments of it, too. Sceptics say it is largely toothless, since Facebook funds its six-year, $130 million budget and the salaries of its members (reportedly in the six-figures). And while it has overturned more of Facebook’s decisions than not, it only looks at individual cases, when it should arguably be scrutinizing Facebook on bigger issues like its potentially-harmful recommendation algorithms.

But it is also no shrinking violet. Within hours of The Wall Street Journal’s story about elite users going online, the board posted this: “The Oversight Board has expressed on multiple occasions its concern about the lack of transparency in Facebook’s content moderation processes, especially relating to the company’s inconsistent management of high-profile accounts." It went on to add: “The Board has repeatedly made recommendations that Facebook be far more transparent in general…"

I’m eager to see what the Oversight Board does next. In the coming weeks it is scheduled to publish its first ever “transparency report" on Facebook, according to an Oversight Board spokesman. It will be the first of a series of quarterly reviews aimed at shining a light on how diligently Facebook has been following the board’s recommendations for each case. And many of the 70 recommendations the board has made to Facebook until now focused on transparency.

Armed with the latest revelations about Facebook’s XCheck system and its studies on teens, the board’s upcoming report could be a golden opportunity to put its foot down. Its members could, if they truly want to make a mark, threaten to quit if Facebook doesn’t divulge the information that they are demanding.

The board’s big problem until now is that its recommendations are not legally binding (only its rulings are). But a senior board administrator recently told me that those same recommendations could, in theory, change the way Facebook’s algorithms are designed to handle content. The board now has a chance to push for Facebook to make those changes. Revelations about the company’s internal policies, and renewed pressure from politicians, should give it some extra leverage.

Several structural changes are likely in the months ahead: The board is working on adding 20 new members to swell its ranks to 40. Here’s hoping they bring on a few [noise makers].

Parmy Olson is a Bloomberg Opinion columnist covering technology.

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