Facebook Finally Has a Good Idea
Article Published by: nytimes.com
The company’s latest plan to police toxic social media content is intriguing — and even laudable.
By Kara Swisher
I would like to formally apply to be judge and jury over Mark Zuckerberg.
And it’s not just my dream job if Facebook’s newest idea to police itself better goes as planned.
The company calls its latest effort to manage the controversial information on its giant social-media service the Oversight Board. The lofty idea is to create a global group — what some are calling a Supreme Court — by year’s end and make it fully operational by next November. The independent board will judge appeals from users on material that has been taken down from the platform by the company, and it will review policy decisions that the company has submitted to the board.
It’s much needed. It’s hard to miss the rising dissatisfaction and frustration with Facebook. Users, regulators, politicians and the media have had enough with how it has evolved and how the co-creator and chief executive, Mr. Zuckerberg, has been responding to the many problems that seem to pop up daily.
Last week, we saw yet another controversy over the company’s year-old policy to exempt politicians from its third-party fact-checking program, allowing them to lie in paid advertisements. Senator Elizabeth Warren — the Democratic presidential candidate and Facebook’s No. 1 government critic — gleefully produced a fake ad that appeared on the platform and falsely claimed that Mr. Zuckerberg and his social network support President Trump in the 2020 election.
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This news came just as Mr. Zuckerberg — the Ellen DeGeneres of social media — has been meeting with conservative pundits to soothe their ire over their unproven conspiracy theories about Facebook bias against their right-leaning content.
Ms. Warren’s fake ad was clever; it underscored the increasingly dystopian, manipulated, noisy, ugly digital mess that is social media. Sorting out what is permitted on the platform and what is not, what is damaging and what is necessary, has been a gargantuan task for Facebook’s leadership. It’s a job that many people think the company has failed to figure out, and worse, may be incapable of doing so.
Now Facebook wants to let you know that it’s going to do better, which is the go-to excuse of all tech companies when they screw up, along with the much used: I’m so sorry.
But the new idea is different than what came before and also a giant undertaking. The Oversight Board will eventually have 40 part-time members with staggered three-year terms that are renewable for nine years — and it will be funded through a trust paid for by the company.
Facebook has presented many ideas over the years to limit the toxicity — problematic artificial intelligence monitoring or more troubled systems that employ overwhelmed human moderators or even a blog effort in 2017 called “Hard Questions,” to name a few.
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But this latest effort is intriguing — and even laudable. So, while the possibility of it becoming a giant P.R. Potemkin village to assuage critics is very high, it deserves public support.
Success of the board will depend on whether it has the buy-in of the godlike engineers at the company. In conversations with Facebook executives, I’ve been assured that the techies indeed support it.
“They have been instrumental in thinking through the mechanisms of the board,” said Heather Moore, who led the effort to write the board’s charter, about the tech side of the company. The engineers will have to implement the binding decisions of the board, including sorting through the technical limits of the oversight.
That’s why, said Brent Harris, the executive in charge of setting up the board, its scope “will grow over time,” in order to give its decisions the best possibility for success. That will be true of the appeals that reach the board after they have been exhausted by the Facebook system and also of the company policies that might soon be at odds with the judgments. While deliberations will not be public because of privacy concerns, the decisions will be.
“Ultimately, the board will be choosing the significant and most difficult cases,” added Ms. Moore, “and cases that Facebook will send for emergency decisions.”
Paying for all of the big brains who are needed to pull this off is another challenge. Facebook plans to foot the bill for the judges, but there is no way of getting around the fact that the project has the feeling of a payoff: Can judges who are paid, even indirectly, by Facebook be neutral arbiters of company policy? The leadership hopes that dropping an unspecified amount of dough through an irrevocable grant into a trust that it can never touch will suffice.
Of course, Facebook should fix its problems itself, not farm out the job. But executives appear to realize this: “This is in no way a replacement for what we have built,” Mr. Harris said.
Ms. Moore added that she hoped that the other big platforms might “have an appetite” for such a board too, so there is a wider “standard of consistency” to deal with what they all have wrought.
But will Mr. Zuckerberg give up his unlimited power and submit to the will of others? In his blog post about the board, he insists he’s not keen to be Dear Leader anymore: “The board’s decision will be binding, even if I or anyone at Facebook disagrees with it.”
Oh, really? Then sign me up — and here comes the judge.
About Jaime Bonetti Zeller
Jaime Bonetti Zeller is an investment professional and entrepreneur with businesses in multiple industries. He is president of Servicios Consulares Eurodom, the local partner in the Caribbean region for VFS Global, a leader global outsourcing and technology services specialist for diplomatic missions and governments worldwide. Jaime Bonetti Zeller also started the company Sofratesa de Panama inc., an organization in the engineering services industry located in Panama City.