The first big test of Facebook’s oversight board will be the US election

Facebook’s much-anticipated independent oversight board — a group that will be able to overrule Facebook’s leaders, even CEO Mark Zuckerberg, about whether controversial posts should stay up or be removed — announced its plans to start making decisions on contested content by mid to late October. That means the board may be called on to make decisions about important Facebook posts related to the US presidential election.

In recent months, some have criticized the long-awaited board for not moving quickly enough to deal with issues around misinformation, hate speech, and extremism on the platform, and doubted whether it would be functional before the November election.

But as long as internal testing of its technical systems goes well, the board says it will start accepting contested content cases around mid to late October. That means that if President Trump or any other candidate declares a premature victory on Facebook on election night, the board could potentially take on that case and decide whether that post should stay up or come down. While the board is still determining the specific criteria for how it will prioritize cases, it generally will take on “difficult, significant and globally relevant” cases “that can inform future policy,” according to its website.

“The go-live date is not connected to any specific case that the board is seeking or not seeking to take,” Facebook oversight board’s director of administration Thomas Hughes told Recode. “That said, the type of case you just described [in which a politician declares a premature election victory], would be in scope, and could be referred to the board by Facebook, or potentially in time, referred to by a user.”

Here’s how the board will work once it goes live: It will take cases both from users and Facebook itself. Facebook the company can refer any kind of contentious post to the board it wants an outside opinion on, and the board will have 90 days (or 30 days if the case is expedited) to rule on the decision. For Facebook users, they can only go to the board if something they personally posted was taken down and they want to dispute it. In later months, the board plans to expand its purview and allow users to request for other people’s content to be taken down if they believe it violates Facebook’s policies against things like hate speech or harmful misinformation.

At a time when Facebook is being attacked by both Republicans and Democrats for how it’s been handling politically contentious speech in the US, the board is meant to add oversight to the company’s decision-making. But it won’t solve the lion’s share of Facebook’s problems around how to deal with hate speech and misinformation. For one thing, the board will only take a small number of cases a year, likely “tens or hundreds” according to Hughes, out of the tens of thousands of annual cases that are expected to come its way.

And it won’t be all about the US, either.

Facebook’s oversight board is made up of 20 lawyers, academics, journalists, and policy experts from all over the world — collectively, its members speak 27 different languages and have lived in 29 different countries.

“Obviously, the US election has an enormous impact on the world,” said Hughes, “But there will be a quite a broad range of things that the board I think would be very keen to get stuck into early on.”

Facebook first floated the idea of an independent oversight board back in 2018, as it was facing scrutiny for its handling of Russian interference on the platform during the 2016 US election. Almost two years later, the board in January announced its governing rules, and in May announced its members.

Ruling on specific controversial posts is one thing, but actually getting Facebook to rethink its policies is another challenge. Some social media researchers have questioned the power of the board to dictate Facebook’s policy, and how much the company will listen to its recommendations.

Now, the election could turn out to be the first big test of how impactful this oversight board will truly be in practice. In fact, whether or not the board accepts a case related to controversial election content is a test in and of itself.

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