It’s been 13 months since Facebook announced it was forming an independent oversight board to tackle its dangerous misinformation problem, pledging $130 million to fund the effort.
But in the middle of a pandemic and with just over a month to go before one of the most divisive elections in U.S. history, the board has yet to meet.
Now, as misinformation about next month’s vote continues to flourish on Facebook, even when it violates the platform’s own policies, dozens of academics, lawmakers, former Facebook employees, journalists, and activists have had enough, and are taking things into their own hands.
They’ve created what they are calling the “Real Facebook Oversight Board” and they held their first public meeting on Wednesday.
The group has outlined three key changes it wants CEO Mark Zuckerberg to make to protect the integrity of the election, a moment this group views as critical to U.S. democracy.
“We're talking about the fate of democracy in the largest democracy in the world,” Roger McNamee, an early Facebook investor who has become one of its most ardent critics, said during the press conference. “Through his action or inaction [Zuckerberg] allows American democracy to be destroyed. It is, in a sense, the last chance for him to get this right.”
In recent months, as well as failing to stem the flow of coronavirus misinformation, Facebook has also tried — and failed — to ban the spread of the QAnon conspiracy theory on their platform. When it comes to the election, Facebook has been repeatedly criticized for failing to implement its own policies on posts that undermine the credibility of the election process, with President Donald Trump repeatedly flouting those rules.
Facebook has attempted to dismiss the group as a sideshow, saying that its board will “do the actual work” — even though that work won’t begin until the middle of October and won’t be asked to look at any issues that arise during the election period.
But, within hours of the first meeting of the “Real Facebook Oversight Board” on Wednesday, Facebook announced that it was implementing one of the group’s key demands.
“As we get closer to Election Day we want to provide further clarity on policies we recently announced,” Rob Leathern, Facebook’s director of product management, tweeted. “Last week we said we’d prohibit ads that make premature declarations of victory. We also won’t allow ads with content that seeks to delegitimize the outcome of an election”
It may have been a coincidence, but the Real Facebook Oversight Board were quick to claim a victory on Wednesday evening.
“Facebook announces it will ban ads that seek to delegitimize the US election, a key demand of the [Real Facebook Oversight Board]. Day 1: Our first victory,” the group tweeted.
During Wednesday’s virtual meeting, Jonathan Greenblatt, CEO of the Anti-Defamation League, outlined the two other practices it wants for Facebook to implement before the Nov. 3 vote.
“Facebook must enforce its own policies and actually remove posts inciting violence, whether those come from ordinary citizens, public speakers, or elected officials, including the President of the United States, Donald Trump,” Greenblatt said.
The final demand asks Facebook to label all user-generated posts about presidential election results as untrue and premature until one candidate is declared President Elect and the other candidate concedes.
Facebook did not immediately respond to a request for comment about whether its new ad policy was a direct result of the demand from the Real Facebook Oversight Board, or about whether it would implement the other two demands.
Facebook is no stranger to criticism, and members of the Real Facebook Oversight Board are among the most vocal critics of the company.
Yet for all the criticism it has faced, from facilitating genocide in Myanmar, to allowing disinformation to spread unchecked across its network, Facebook has offered little more than make vague promises to do better.
“We have not seen this level of deafness from a corporate entity who served society,” Derrick Johnson, CEO of the NAACP, said. “We have had many conversations with Facebook, and they have refused to address basic issues of keeping people safe and protecting our democracy.
Facebook has tried “to blame their failures on outside forces or factors” Johnson said, highlighting a recent incident in which Facebook failed to remove a militia group's page that called for armed civilians to enter Kenosha, Wisconsin.
Users had flagged the page several times but Facebook only took it down after 17-year-old Kyle Rittenhouse allegedly shot and killed two people. Zuckerberg called the issue “an operational mistake,” blaming a contractor for failing to take the page down.
“Facebook should do what every other company in American business history does when your product doesn't work and it kills people,” Greenblatt said. “You take it down and you fix it. That's how it works in every industry. That's what we're asking for.”
So far Facebook has appeared uninterested in engaging with the group and given how slow the company has been to address its failings in the past, there may be little hope that the company will be willing to act now.
But one recent significant change could finally spur Facebook and Zuckerberg to take action: The public’s perception of Facebook has taken a hammering in the wake of the coronavirus pandemic, where misinformation spread on Facebook has been linked to an increased death toll.
“The American public has entirely lost faith with this corporation,” Shoshanna Zuboff, author of the book Surveillance Capitalism, told the press conference.
“I'm looking at numbers right now. 70% say Mark Zuckerberg has too much power, and that Facebook puts profits over societal harm. 79% want Facebook to do more to protect democracy. 91% wanted to fix misinformation as a matter of the greatest urgency to democracy.”
Additionally, the continued presence of white supremacist content on the platform, despite Facebook’s promises to eradicate it, are significantly damaged the company’s public perception.
“We know this platform has been used to promote white supremacy,” Johnson said. “White supremacy groups convened on this platform, they recruit on this platform, and then use this platform to create avenues of harm towards people based on their race, their religious their ethnic background that should not be tolerated. This is not about critics. This is about keeping people safe and keeping our democracy safe.”
Given its years of inaction, it is easy to be cynical about efforts to make Facebook change its ways, but Rashad Robinson, president of activist group Color of Change says that if no one tries to hold the company to account, then everyone will share the blame.
“Our blood will have to be shed before Facebook does anything, unless policy makers and all of those who enabled Facebook step up and do something,” Robinson said. “History will not only look unkindly on Facebook, but it will look unkindly on all of those who knew better
and did not do better.”
Cover: 15 February 2020, Bavaria, Munich: Mark Zuckerberg, Chairman of Facebook, speaks on the second day of the 56th Munich Security Conference. The fight against propaganda campaigns and other attempts at manipulation costs Facebook billions every year. Tobias Hase/picture-alliance/dpa/AP Images