The big concern around Facebook's independent Oversight Board project has always been how much of an influence it can have, and whether it will be able to force the company to change its more controversial policies.
The basic idea is sound: Facebook has formed a group of experts from various fields to provide another avenue for review of its content decisions, basically giving Facebook users a way to seek more fairness and impartiality in such matters while also providing guidance for Facebook's policy decisions.
Many would agree that this is desperately required, given the multiple issues Facebook has faced on this front - from allowing antisemitic speech to 'censoring' the former President - but technically, Facebook does not have to implement any of the Oversight Board's conclusions.
So do they? Is Facebook following the Board's suggestions, and if so, is this helping to strengthen its strategy?
The new quarterly post from Facebook's Oversight Board brings a new degree of transparency to the subject, describing the complete breadth of Board actions thus far, as well as how Facebook has responded to its recommendations.
On the surface, the Oversight Board appears to be assisting Facebook in improving its systems.
The Oversight Board issued 18 recommendations based on six incidents in the first quarter of 2021, as shown in this graph, and Facebook is implementing 14 of them in full or in part.
"[We're] still assessing the feasibility of implementing three, and taking no action on one. The size and scope of the board’s recommendations go beyond the policy guidance that we first anticipated when we set up the board, and several require multi-month or multi-year investments."
In addition to these individual case notes, Facebook has asked the Board to review 26 of its content decision cases, all of which are related to its platform regulations, of which the board has chosen three.
These three case areas are concerned with:
A case involving alleged COVID-19 cures
A case of a veiled threat based on religious beliefs
A case involving the decision to suspend former US President Donald Trump's account indefinitely.
You may have heard about the final one, but the others have given Facebook additional advice for its general platform rules and regulations, giving it more knowledge - and, perhaps, leading to Facebook adopting more balanced, nuanced policies for what it will and won't accept on its platforms.
Of course, that will never satisfy everyone. Some users will see these rules as censorship, while others will argue that Facebook should do more to protect its users.
It won't get everything right all the time, but the addition of these expert opinions should help Facebook better in line with social norms and mitigate the platform's potential negative influence in amplifying some of the more controversial and divisive features.
As a result of this guideline, Facebook claims it has already undertaken a number of changes, including better explanations for policy violations and new tests to see how alerting people whether automation was used in enforcement affects them. Facebook also stated that they had amended its policy on Dangerous Organizations and Individuals, "creating three layers of content enforcement for different levels of severity and adding definitions of key terms."
As such, the Oversight Board has an impact, with its outside perspective assisting in the better shaping of the platform's policy approach.
This might lead to other platforms or regulatory agencies wanting to introduce something similar, which is exactly what Facebook's Oversight Board project is about. Facebook doesn't want to be the one to decide what is and isn't allowed on its platform; instead, it wants all digital platforms to be subject to the same set of regulations and enforcement, which can only be accomplished through an independent evaluation like this.
The Oversight Board is essentially Facebook's demonstration of how this could function, and it may one day provide a framework for regulation and improved online conversation.
The findings presented offer some insight into that process, as well as a glimpse into the future.
And, at least based on these preliminary data, they appear to be promising.
The full Facebook Oversight Board Q1 review may be found here.