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Facebook’s independent Oversight Board demands transparency on exemptions for politicians

The request is in response to Wall Street Journal reporting that some high-profile users were ‘white-listed’ by Facebook

Facebook CEO Mark Zuckerberg testifies remotely before the House Judiciary Committee last year. (Carolyn Van Houten/The Washington Post)
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Facebook’s independent Oversight Board forcefully reiterated demands for more transparency from the company on how it treats high-profile users and politicians who break the platform’s rules, according to a blog post Tuesday.

In the post, the body that Facebook created to oversee its content decisions commended Wall Street Journal reporters who recently revealed that high-profile users were getting exemptions from its rules.

“These disclosures have drawn renewed attention to the seemingly inconsistent way that the company makes decisions, and why greater transparency and independent oversight of Facebook matter so much for users,” the board said.

The board is asking for further clarity on information previously shared by Facebook on the practices and said it expects to receive a briefing from the company in the coming days. The board is also looking at further recommendations for Facebook policies, it said.

Last week, the Journal published an investigation that included details on how a large number of high-profile users received white-glove treatment from Facebook executives, as well as how internal research had shown that using Instagram was damaging to the self-esteem of teenage girls.

The blog post, in addition to the board’s previous decisions, aims to demonstrate that the board is intent on using its public spotlight to ensure that Facebook is forthcoming. The Journal report asserted that Facebook had previously “misled” the board in its description of the program for high-profile users.

The call-out of Facebook comes at a critical moment for the Oversight Board, as it develops its reputation and authority. The board, which has been in operation for less than a year, rose in prominence after Facebook asked it to weigh in on its decision to ban President Donald Trump from the platform in the aftermath of the Jan. 6 attack on the U.S. Capitol by his supporters. The entity is largely an experiment in content moderation, and it’s unclear how much power the board will hold over one of the world’s most valuable and scandal-plagued companies.

In recent months, there’s been a greater push from the board to ensure that Facebook is following through on commitments to implement its recommendations. The board recently set up a team to track Facebook’s actions and plans to publicly report on how effective the company is.

Facebook did not immediately respond to a request for comment. In a hearing on Capitol Hill on Tuesday, a Facebook public policy vice president, Steve Satterfield, said the company was “looking into” how to provide more transparency. However, he declined to commit to publicizing the internal research that the Journal reported on or to sending a Facebook executive to a hearing related to the reporting later this month.

The Oversight Board, which is funded by Facebook and composed of independent experts, had previously asked the firm for more information on its exemptions for politicians, saying that it needed to “address widespread confusion about how decisions relating to influential users are made.”

The request was in the context of a decision the board issued in May on the fate of Trump’s Facebook account.

Facebook tried to outsource its decision about Trump. The Oversight Board said not so fast.

The Oversight Board said Facebook made the right call in suspending Trump but chastised the company for having opaque rules about high-profile accounts and for creating an indefinite suspension on the fly.

For instance, the company says it has a newsworthiness exemption for high-profile accounts, which allows some of their content to skirt rules prohibiting hate speech, bullying and other ills. But over the years, Facebook has given conflicting and incomplete answers as to how many times it has applied the exemption, as well as which high-profile accounts or types of content fall under the policy.

In its responses to the Oversight Board, Facebook noted that it has both a newsworthiness exemption and a system called “cross check,” which reroutes potential content violations by high-profile users to a special team for a second review. But the company also said it made such exemptions for high-profile and political accounts a “small number” of times.

Last week, the Journal reported that the cross check program had been applied to millions of decisions, and that some high-profile users had been “white-listed” or made completely exempt from Facebook’s rules.

The Journal’s reporting caused “renewed attention to the seemingly inconsistent way that the company makes decisions,” the board wrote, adding that it was looking into whether Facebook has “been fully forthcoming in its responses in relation to cross-check, including the practice of whitelisting.”

Zuckerberg once wanted to sanction Trump. Then Facebook wrote rules that accommodated him.

The board said it would release the results of its conversations with Facebook in a transparency report in October.

“It is crucial that we continue to ask questions on cross-check, and publish the answers for people to see,” the board said, adding that transparency is key. “The choices made by companies like Facebook have real-world consequences for the freedom of expression and human rights of billions of people across the world.”

It added: “By having clear rules and enforcing them consistently, platforms can give users the confidence that they’ll be treated fairly. Ultimately, that benefits everyone.”

Facebook has previously not been direct with the board. Initially, the company told the board that it had never applied a newsworthiness exemption to Trump.

The Washington Post reported, however, that the newsworthiness exemption was created specifically for Trump in 2015. Later, Facebook said it did not keep track of how many times it applied the exemption, but that it had applied the policy to Trump in one instance.

The Journal’s revelations are reverberating on Capitol Hill and adding to the momentum to regulate Facebook. Sen. Mike Lee (Utah), the top Republican on the Senate Judiciary antitrust subcommittee, said at a Tuesday hearing that the Journal articles showed “stunning lapses” in protecting Facebook users.

He said it underscored the need for greater competition in social media. “This too looks like the behavior of monopolies, a monopolist that’s so sure its customers have nowhere else to go that it displays a reckless disregard for quality assurance, for its own brand image and even just being honest with its own users about the obvious safety risks that it’s subjecting its users to, particularly its teenage users,” Lee said.