Experts weigh in on Facebook’s new Oversight Board

Note: I originally wrote this for the newsletter at the Columbia Journalism Review, where I am the chief digital writer

Almost two years after it first started talking about the idea, Facebook finally announced the first members of its so-called Oversight Board, the “Supreme Court” that will — theoretically, at least — have the ability to overrule Facebook and its CEO Mark Zuckerberg when it comes to questions about whether certain types of content should be taken down or not. The 20 initial members were announced last week (there will be a total of about 40 at some point in the future, Facebook says), and they are an impressive group, including a Nobel Peace Prize winner, multiple experts in constitutional law, a former federal court judge, etc. But despite this pedigreed roster, there are still plenty of problematic questions about the board itself, including: How much power will it actually have? Is it just an elaborate PR effort designed to make it look as though the company is doing something, to keep regulators at bay?

We used CJR’s Galley discussion platform to host a virtual panel discussion on these and other related questions, with input from a number of journalists and other experts including Daphne Keller, a director at the Stanford Center for Internet and Society and former deputy legal counsel at Google; Steven Levy, Wired magazine editor-at-large and author of the recent book “Facebook: The Inside Story“; David Kaye, the UN’s special rapporteur for freedom of expression; Alex Stamos, director of the Stanford Internet Observatory and former head of security at Facebook; Emily Bell, director of the Tow Center for Digital Journalism at Columbia University’s journalism school, and Rebecca MacKinnon, a co-founder of Global Voices and founding director of the Ranking Digital Rights project the New America Foundation.

Levy said he first heard about the oversight board concept when Mark Zuckerberg, Facebook’s CEO, mentioned it as something he was mulling over, a way to address his often-stated remark that “You don’t want me to determine who gets to say what.” The veteran technology writer said his reaction to Zuckerberg has always been to say “you built this system and now you own it, including the responsibility for what’s on it,” but he admitted that he is intrigued by the idea that Zuckerberg — even in a small way — has “authorized an outside body to overrule him, a power that for all effective purposes, even his board of directors doesn’t have.” MacKinnon, however, noted that while the board’s membership is illustrious, “it cannot stop the exploitative collection and sharing of user data, or stop the company from deploying opaque algorithms that prioritize inflammatory content to maximize engagement.”

Continue reading

Life in a time of COVID-19

Note: I wrote most of this post on or around March 20th, but I’ve since updated much of the information in it several times, including updated charts and graphs with links to sources, as well as updates in bold throughout the text: Last updated May 10

The title of this post is a reference to the famous Gabriel García Márquez book “Love in a Time of Cholera.” I thought it was fitting was because it feels as though COVID-19 is our version of the cholera epidemic of the 1800s, or the Spanish flu of 1918 (which wasn’t Spanish at all, but probably originated in Kansas and was a form of H1N1) or the Black Death of the 1300’s. Those changed the way we lived forever, in thousands of small ways (as this piece argues that COVID-19 will), and I find myself wondering what it would have felt like if Twitter and Facebook and the Internet had been around during the Plague years. Would they have made fun of people wearing “plague masks” that made them look like giant birds? (Side note: Here’s the story of an Italian town that beat the plague, and how they did it).

I know for sure that if social media existed during the Middle Ages, they would have been full of posts that said things like “my sister is a doctor, and she says gargling with vinegar can cure the plague!” (one popular hoax is to promote the drinking of bleach, which as I like to point out will successfully kill the virus, but unfortunately at the cost of killing the patient as well). This past week — April 24 or so — Donald Trump mused aloud at a press conference that maybe injecting disinfectants might work. In the days that followed, hundreds of people called 911 after swallowing cleaning fluid of various kinds, but Trump said he wasn’t to blame.

I went back and looked at some email newsletters I subscribe to that I hadn’t gotten around to reading from the end of February, and none of them even mentioned the coronavirus (which was still concentrated in China, and seen as not a big threat elsewhere). It was refreshing to read them, since everything is pretty much all COVID-19 all the time now, but it also felt surreal. Those newsletters were from less than a month ago, but it felt like they were from 10 or even a hundred years ago. When I started writing this post around March 19 or so, Italy (which only had 200 cases and no deaths at the end of February) had more than 20,000 cases. As of March 27, it had more than 86,000 cases and more than 900 deaths in a single day. Bodies were piling up in churches.

Continue reading

Facebook’s new oversight board: Supreme Court or fig leaf?

Note: I wrote this originally for the daily newsletter at the Columbia Journalism Review, where I am the chief digital writer

More than two years after Mark Zuckerberg, co-founder and CEO of Facebook, first raised the idea of an independent “Supreme Court” that might help regulate content on the network, the first members of what it is now calling its Oversight Board have been named. The company released the names and bios of the 20 appointees on Wednesday morning, and also held a conference call with a number of journalists to take questions about the board and its mandate. The call was hosted by Thomas Hughes, director of administration for the Oversight Board, along with the board’s four co-chairs: Jamal Greene, a professor of law at Columbia University; Michael McConnell, director of the constitutional law center at Stanford and a former federal circuit-court judge; Helle Thorning-Schmidt, the former prime minister of Denmark, and Catalina Botero-Marino, the former special rapporteur for freedom of expression for the Organization of American States.

The 20 appointees announced on Wednesday — about half of the total number the board is expected to have when it is completed, according to Facebook executive Brent Harris — are an illustrious group that includes a director from Human Rights Watch, the founder of the Digital Rights Foundation in Pakistan, a professor at Stanford Law School, a First Amendment scholar and vice president at the Cato Institute, a director of the Open Society Initiative for West Africa, and Tawakkol Karman, a Yemeni winner of the Nobel Peace Prize. The group also includes a couple of journalists: Alan Rusbridger, former editor-in-chief of the Guardian, and Endy Bayuni, a senior editor at Indonesia’s Jakarta Post. In a Medium post about his appointment, Rusbridger says about his decision: “Will it work? Let’s see. There is, in my view, no excuse for not trying. The balancing of free expression with the need for a better-organised public square is one of the most urgent causes I can imagine.”

As CJR has explained before, the idea behind the oversight board is to have an independent body that can make decisions about the often contentious decisions that Facebook makes — whether to take down an image of a naked Vietnamese girl covered in napalm, for example. There are a number of restrictions on what the board can review: at least for now, it can only hear cases about things that have been taken down, not things that have been left up, and its ambit doesn’t extend to WhatsApp. Facebook says it is committed to the independence of the group, and that under the charter that it put together to govern the board, its decisions are binding — meaning it will theoretically be forced to implement them (unless doing so would break the law). Some see the board as a valuable check on Facebook’s power to control the speech and behavior of billions of users. But others question whether the board will truly be independent or effective against such a massive corporate entity, and see it as a fig leaf that allows Facebook to pretend it cares about such topics.

Continue reading

The Isolation 2020 Country Jamboree

Since people aren’t supposed to go outside or meet in groups during the coronavirus pandemic, people are spending a lot more time online, and one of the things they are doing (apart from endless Zoom calls) is trying to recreate some of the things they enjoyed during more normal times — like the old campfire singalong or basement jam session, for example. Someone in need of the latter created a Facebook group called the Isolation 2020 Country Jamboree, and it has quickly become one of my favorite stopping points on Facebook. The idea behind the group — which had 26,000 members when I wrote this — is that anyone can record themselves playing the guitar or piano or whatever instrument they feel like playing, and then upload it to share with everyone who is missing live music. It’s really great.

I found the group after a friend posted about it a few weeks ago, and asked me to play and upload a song (a John Prine one, since he had just passed away). So I recorded one, and uploaded it, and I think it got 5 likes or something like that, and one nice comment. I confess this made me a little irritated, since I thought I was much better than lots of the other people who were uploading songs (in my own mind anyway) and some of them got dozens or even hundreds of likes and comments. Social-media thirst is a terrible affliction 🙂 Anyway, at first I thought the hell with it, I don’t need to go there any more, most of the singers are terrible, and their videos are bad, and so on. Or that’s what I told myself anyway. But I kept seeing them pop up in my Facebook feed, and I clicked on a few, and I have to say the whole thing kind of started to grow on me.

Not only were some of the videos and songs pretty good — in some cases by people who play professionally, and have albums, etc. like Heather Valley, who has an excellent voice — but even some of the “bad” ones started to grow on me. The whole thing is like a giant campfire singalong with hundreds of guitarists and singers, some of whom are excellent and some of whom are, well… enthusiastic at least. Some are shy (and a few of them are the best) and some are very confident without reason. But some are just quietly great, and some of the ones you wouldn’t expect turn out to be the most talented, with great voices, and some great guitar playing. There was even a guy who recreated an entire Supertramp song with all the keyboard parts, plus the snippets of a Winston Churchill speech that were included in the original.

In some cases, their phones are pointed up at the ceiling, or they have fingerprints all over them, or they are too far away, or the volume isn’t high enough, but in most cases the passion comes through anyway and none of that matters. Some of my favorites are the ones where the player is sitting in their garage or a woodshed, with their overalls or work clothes on, and maybe their guitar isn’t the best, and then they launch into something and it’s just great. One guy standing in his garage as his kids rode in and out on bikes admitted that he’d had a few beers after work and then did a great version of My Home Town by Bruce Springsteen. I’ve been going through it and adding comments on almost every one of them, telling them they did a great job and to keep it up. Maybe it’s the cabin fever talking, but it’s become one of my favorite things.

Fighting misinformation during a global pandemic

Note: This was written originally for the daily newsletter at the Columbia Journalism Review, where I am the chief digital writer

act-checking and verification was already a crucial skill for journalists even before the COVID-19 pandemic came along, thanks in part to the rise of Donald Trump and the alt-right’s weaponization of social media as a distribution method for misinformation. But the coronavirus has made fact-checking and filtering skills even more important, as trolls traffic in rumors about how drinking bleach or taking mega-doses of vitamin C can cure the virus, or how the rollout of 5G technology caused COVID-19 (misinformation that Twitter is now removing in the UK if it presents a tangible threat, after a number of antennas were toppled and burned). Complicating things even further is the fact that the president of the US himself is spreading misinformation about whether the virus can be treated by injecting disinfectant or using UV rays inside the body.

To talk about some of the skills and tactics that journalists (or anyone, for that matter) can use to fight this kind of misinformation, we used CJR’s Galley discussion platform to speak with a number of experts in fact-checking and verification, all of whom are co-authors of the latest edition of the Verification Handbook, which was published earlier this week by the European Journalism Centre (later this week, we’ll be using Galley to interview Gemma Mendoza of Rappler, Brandy Zadrozny of NBC, and Claire Wardle of First Draft). Craig Silverman, the media editor at BuzzFeed, selected all the authors and edited the handbook, and says the skills described in it are more important than they have ever been.

“It’s important for journalists to embrace complexity and to resist instinctively grasping for the obvious explanation,” Silverman told CJR. To give one example, he said, there has been a lot of bad reporting that assumes Russian trolls are to blame for everything bad on social media. “Poorly worded politics tweet from a newly-created Twitter account? Russian troll! Someone promoting trump? Russian troll!” In reality, the provenance of a specific rumor or hoax may be a lot more complicated, involving 4chan posts that were then shared on Twitter and picked up by an alt-right media outlet, and then tweeted by the president. And the platforms share much of the blame, Donie O’Sullivan of CNN told CJR. “We had a story this week about a conspiracy theory falsely claiming an innocent woman in the US was coronavirus patient zero. The conspiracy had been circulating on YouTube for weeks and the company didn’t do a whole lot about it.”

Continue reading