BOB GARFIELD: Facebook, as we have heard, is under the absolute control of Mark Zuckerberg– which is cool for him because he gets to be a multibillionaire sultan. But when things go wrong, and they always go wrong, he also gets all the blame.
SENATOR DIANNE FEINSTEIN: You've created these platforms and now they are being misused. And you have to be the ones to do something about it–or we will.
BOB GARFIELD: That was Democratic Senator Dianne Feinstein. Zuckerberg has been hearing such indignation off and on for 15 years. And for 15 years, he's been responding as follows, a mealy mouth mea culpa.
MARK ZUCKERBERG: I don't think we are transparent enough around the prevalence of different issues on the platform.
BOB GARFIELD: Followed by promises, seldom fulfilled, to do better.
MARK ZUCKERBERG: From now on Facebook will do more to keep you safe and protect your privacy, so we can all get back to what made Facebook good in the first place. [END CLIP]
BOB GARFIELD: These tactics have worn thin but now a new wrinkle. The creation, by Facebook, of an independent international board of reviewers charged with adjudicating decisions about permissible content–a so-called Supreme Court of Facebook. No authority on ad targeting or data privacy or, you know, human brain manipulation– but still, an independent judiciary. How proactive is that? Facebook is so proud in fact that contrary to its standard practice of declining OTM interviews, it offered up a real live employee to discuss it. Andy O'Connell is a manager of content distribution and algorithm policy at Facebook. Andy welcome to the show.
ANDY O'CONNELL: Thank you very much, I'm excited to be here.
BOB GARFIELD: OK, so it's been called the Facebook Supreme Court. Is it that?
ANDY O'CONNELL: We recognize that we all bear the ultimate responsibility for what we keep up or what we take down. And we obviously are still going to continue making those important decisions every day all around the world. But the intent of this board is to ensure that we're striking the right balance between giving people voice, keeping people safe and we want this board to hold us accountable and provide that independent oversight as we do that important work.
BOB GARFIELD: Who will be on this board?
ANDY O'CONNELL: We don't know who these specific people are. A big part of this is putting these questions to the public, to stakeholders around the world and making these decisions together with the people who have an interest in how Facebook operates.
BOB GARFIELD: You don't know exactly who the players will be the individuals, but, I imagine you do know precisely what they would be the judge of. What do you expect to come before them?
ANDY O'CONNELL: The core issue that we're talking about is whether a particular piece of content should be allowed on Facebook under the Facebook's values and community standards.
BOB GARFIELD: Now there were millions of posts per day on Facebook worldwide, how will particularly problematic ones find their way to the panel?
ANDY O'CONNELL: We can imagine cases bubbling up through our existing appeals system. Already today on Facebook, you can appeal. If we take down your posts, for example, because our reviewers determine that it violates our hate speech or bullying policies. And you can go back to us and say, 'no you got that wrong. Take another look'–and we will. So you can imagine us trying to build a mechanism on top of that that connects more directly to this external oversight board. You can also imagine a very different system where, perhaps, this board sets up their own infrastructure to which people can create petitions and try to get people in the community or around the world to endorse the board hearing a case on a particular matter. There's a lot of design decisions that need to be made but those are among the sort of two big paths we can imagine going down.
BOB GARFIELD: And whatever decisions the board makes on a particular piece of content, will that be deemed to be precedent, as with the US Supreme Court governing the subsequent treatment of similar cases?
ANDY O'CONNELL: We acknowledge that these decisions need to be binding and transparent. We think reason giving is going to be a really important part of helping people to understand why decisions are made but also helping Facebook, as a company, figure out how to improve our larger enforcement system.
BOB GARFIELD: If I'm one of those moderators and something comes up, can I rule that, you know, under the terms of the oversight council's ruling on user Margaret Ann versus Alex Jones, we are going to remove this content from the platform.
ANDY O'CONNELL: I think exactly how we would implement that is an open question. But I do think it is important that there is a feedback mechanism between the decisions of this board and how the company operates.
BOB GARFIELD: I have to ask you this, you are no doubt familiar with the old saw that a lie travels around the world three times while the truth is still putting on its pants. On Facebook, we're speaking of milliseconds. Whether insane pizza gate conspiracies or Russian propaganda, all the scandalous activity that has brought Facebook under the glare of suspicion and scorn, your content moderation infrastructure, those 30000 people, you know, obviously have been useless. Mobs form quickly and violently. How in the world would this be mitigated by the impaneling of an even more deliberate Supreme Court?
ANDY O'CONNELL: Yeah I think it's an important question. Those decisions, as you've suggested, need to be made quickly with lots of local context, local language expertise, all around the world 24 hours per day. This board would supplement that by providing an additional way for the most controversial, the most consequential, the highest public interest decisions, to have a more thorough public treatment in a way that can provide feedback to improve those systems going forward.
BOB GARFIELD: Facebook lives everyday with the sword of Damocles called regulation perpetually hanging over its head. One way to stave off government regulation is self-regulation. But whether or not this initiative should keep Congress and the FTC and the Justice Department at bay, another benefit for the company–say the next time Mark appears on Capitol Hill after things have gone horribly wrong–is that he will have a third party to blame. There is a line of thinking from Max Reed writing in New York magazine, that this Supreme Court would function as a supreme scapegoat. Is that just too cynical?
ANDY O'CONNELL: I think that no matter how we construct this board, Facebook is ultimately going to be responsible for what we keep up or what we take down. And again, we're still going to need to make these decisions, you know, millions of times per day across 30,000 people around the world. And we accept and embrace that responsibility and want to keep doing a better job with that responsibility.
BOB GARFIELD: You know Andy, whenever we discuss Facebook on the program we ask to speak with someone from the company to get comment or respond to whatever else is said. And the answer is always no. It took the US Congress a year to get Mark Zuckerberg to testify. Yet for this request the company made you available immediately. And therefore, I am obliged to ask is this oversight board exercise designed to deal with the actual threats that face us? Or is it a PR gimmick to deflect the ever mounting suspicion and scorn? Or, you know, maybe both?
ANDY O'CONNELL: The purpose of this board is to provide another layer of oversight and accountability and transparency to the content moderation decisions that we make every day. And that independence accountability and transparency emphasis is really what's driving this.
BOB GARFIELD: And the publicity is just a bonus?
ANDY O'CONNELL: I think that, again, the initiative that we're working on here is is trying to accomplish those goals that I've said.
BOB GARFIELD: Well Andy thank you very much for spending time with us.
ANDY O'CONNELL: Thank you very much Bob.
BOB GARFIELD: Andy O'Connell is a manager of content distribution and algorithm policy at Facebook.
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BOB GARFIELD: Coming up two streetwise Irishmen with a lot of moxie and a lot of heart, who, for decades, gave voice to the powerless in New York City and beyond. This is On The Media.