Tech watchdog calls on Facebook Oversight Board members to demand real power or resign

A new policy-focused nonprofit that emerged from the recent wave of big tech scrutiny is calling for members of Facebook’s Oversight Board to either step up or step down. In an open letter, Accountable Tech urges the five U.S.-based Facebook Oversight Board members to “demand the Board be given real authority” or quit their positions.

“Each of you were selected to serve on this Board because of your outspoken commitment to free expression, human rights, and democratic values,” the letter’s authors write. “Now is the time to uphold those principles. We humbly ask that you refuse to be complicit in this Facebook charade –– that you demand sweeping and immediate changes, or walk away.”

Accountable Tech is a progressive project founded by grassroots campaign organizer and director of the 2017 Tax March, Nicole Gill, and Jesse Lehrich, who served as foreign policy spokesperson for Hillary Clinton’s 2016 presidential bid. Lehrich worked on the Clinton campaign’s response to Russian disinformation efforts that year, giving him a front row seat to emerging online threats to U.S. elections.

“Facebook specializes in window dressing,” Gill told TechCrunch. “They have been touting the Oversight Board for years as this grandiose solution, but the platform’s problems are more urgent than ever, and the Board is powerless.”

A handful of other groups also signed the open letter, including the Center For American Progress Action Fund, Free Press and the Sierra Club. The letter cites findings from Facebook’s recent civil rights audit that cast doubt on the board’s real power and also notes the oversight body’s delayed timeline. First announced in late 2018, the board won’t be up and running in time for the 2020 election.

Responding to criticism, the Facebook Oversight Board’s head of communications Dex Hunter-Torricke defended the board’s timeline as necessary given its mandate to evaluate “many of the most challenging content issues on Facebook and Instagram.” Hunter-Torricke added that the board’s decisions on what content should be allowed or removed will be “final and binding.”

“Building an institution capable of making thoughtful decisions on issues with enormous significance for communities around the world is something that takes time,” Hunter-Torricke said. “The Board is moving as quickly as possible to go operational, while acting with care.”

Because it is ostensibly tasked with making decisions about what content should be removed from Facebook and Instagram, in theory the board could have played a role in ridding those platforms of election-related misinformation — a looming threat with November around the corner. But restrictive bylaws coupled with a focus on reviewing content takedowns rather than content left up meant the oversight effort was widely regarded as toothless from the outset.

Board aside, Facebook is making some efforts to at least disseminate useful voting information to users, a defensive posture the company feels more comfortable in compared to playing offense against potential rule breaking. Last week, the company rolled out info labels on all voting-related posts from federal elected officials that link to vetted election information, a feature that will soon expand to all voting posts in the U.S.

In early June, Accountable Tech launched a memorable Facebook ad campaign targeting the company’s employees on their own platform. The ads, which urged Facebook workers to hold the company to account, came a day after some employees staged a virtual walkout to protest a now-infamous post in which the president threatened to shoot people protesting the police killing of George Floyd.

Facebook also faced scrutiny recently for hosting Trump’s false claims about mail-in voting and those falsehoods remain live on the platform without context or correction. These instances and others are cause for concern as the stakes for social platforms during the 2020 election inch higher and higher, worries made explicit by the open letter’s authors.

“As we enter an unprecedented election season—amid a global pandemic, an inflection point for racial justice, and a crisis of truth—we cannot accept Facebook’s toxic status quo, much less a toothless Oversight Board that lends it a false air of legitimacy.”