Governance: Facebook designs its oversight board (should journalism?)

Facebook is devoting impressive resources — months of time and untold millions of dollars — to developing systems of governance, of its users and of itself, raising fascinating questions about who governs whom according to what rules and principles, with what accountability. I’d like to ask similar questions about journalism.

I just spent a day at Facebook’s fallen skyscraper of a headquarters attending one of the last of more than two dozen workshops it has held to solicit input on its plans to start an Oversight Board. [Disclosures: Facebook paid for participants’ hotel rooms and I’ve raised money from Facebook for my school.] Weeks ago, I attended another such meeting in New York. In that time, the concept has advanced considerably. Most importantly, in New York, the participants were worried that the board would be merely an appeals court for disputes over content take-downs. Now it is clear that Facebook knows such a board must advise and openly press Facebook on bigger policy issues.

Facebook’s team showed the latest group of academics and others a near-final draft of a board charter (which will be released in a few weeks, in 20-plus languages). They are working on by-laws and finalizing legal structures for independence. They’ve thought through myriad details about how cases will rise (from users and Facebook) and be taken up by the board (at the board’s discretion); about conflict resolution and consensus; about transparency in board membership but anonymity in board decisions; about how members will be selected (after the first members join, the board will select its own members); about what the board will start with (content takedowns) and what it can tackle later (content demotion and taking down users, pages, groups — and ads); about how to deal with GDPR and other privacy regulation in sharing information about cases with the board; about how the board’s precedents will be considered but will not prevent the board from changing its mind; even about how other platforms could join the effort. They have grappled with most every structural, procedural, and legal question the 2,000 people they’ve consulted could imagine.

But as I sat there I saw something missing: the larger goal and soul of the effort and thus of the company and the communities it wants to foster. They have structured this effort around a belief, which I share, in the value of freedom of expression, and the need — recognized too late — to find ways to monitor and constrain that freedom when it is abused and used to abuse. But that is largely a negative: how and why speech (or as Facebook, media, and regulators all unfortunately refer to it: content) will be limited.

Facebook’s Community Standards — in essence, the statutes the Oversight Board will interpret and enforce and suggest to revise — are similarly expressed in the negative: what speech is not allowed and how the platform can maintain safety and promote voice and equality among its users by dealing with violations. In its Community Standards (set by Facebook and not by the community, by the way), there are nods to higher ends — sharing stories, seeing the world through others’ eyes, diversity, equity, empowerment. But then the Community Standards becomes a document about what users should not do. And none of the documents says much if anything about Facebook’s own obligations.

So in California, I wondered aloud what principles the Oversight Board would call upon in its decisions. More crucially, I wondered whom the board is meant to serve and represent: does it operate in loco civitas (in place of the community), publico (public), imperium (government and regulators), or Deus, (God — that is, higher ethics and standards)? [Anybody with better schooling than I had, please correct my effort at Latin.]

I think these documents, this effort, and this company — along with other tech companies — need a set of principles that should set forth:

  • Higher goals. Why are people coming to Facebook? What do they want to create? What does the company want to build? What good will it bring to the world? Why does it exist? For whose benefit? Zuckerberg issued a new mission statement in 2017: “To give people the power to build community and bring the world closer together.” And that is fine as far as it goes, but that’s not very far. What does this mean? What should we expect Facebook to be? This statement of goals should be the North Star that guides not just the Oversight Board but every employee and every user at Facebook.
  • A covenant with users and the public in which Facebook holds itself accountable for its own responsibilities and goals. As an executive from another tech company told me, terms of service and community standards are written to regulate the behavior of users, not companies. Well, companies should put forth their own promises and principles and draw them up in collaboration with users (civitas), the public (publico), and regulators (imperium). And that gives government — as in the case of proposed French legislation — the basis for holding the company accountable.

I’ll explore these ideas further in a moment, but first let me first address the elephant on my keyboard: whether Facebook and its founder and executives and employees have a soul. I’ve been getting a good dose of crap on Twitter the last few days from people who blithely declare — and others who retweet the declaration — that Zuckerberg is the most dangerous man on earth. I respond: Oh, come on. My dangerous-person list nowadays starts with Trump, Murdoch, Putin, Xi, Kim, Duterte, Orbán, Erdoğan, MBS…you get the idea. To which these people respond: But you’re defending Facebook. I will defend it and its founder from ridiculous, click-bait trolling that devalues the real danger our world is in today. I also criticize Facebook publicly and did at the meetings I attended there. Facebook has fucked up plenty lately and that’s why it needs oversight. At least they realize it.

When I defend internet platforms against what I see as media’s growing moral panic, irresponsible reporting, and conflict of interest, I’m defending the internet itself and the freedoms it affords from what I fear will be continuing regulation of our own speech and freedom. I don’t oppose regulation; I have been proposing what I see as reasonable regimes. But I worry about where a growing unholy alliance against the internet between the far right and technophes in media will end.

That is why I attend meetings such as the ones that Facebook convenes and why I just spent two weeks in California meeting with both platform and newspaper executives, to try to build bridges and constructive relationships. That’s why I take Facebook’s effort to build its Oversight Board seriously, to hold them to account.

Indeed, as I sat in a conference room at Facebook hearing its plans, it occurred to me that journalism as a profession and news organizations individually would do well to follow this example. We in journalism have no oversight, having ousted most ombudsmen who tried to offer at least some self-reflection and -criticism (and having failed in the UK to come up with a press council that isn’t a sham). We journalists make no covenants with the public we serve. We refuse to acknowledge — as Facebook executives did acknowledge about their own company — our “trust deficit.”

We in journalism do love to give awards to each other. But we do not have a means to systematically identify and criticize bad journalism. That job has now fallen to, of all unlikely people, politicians, as Beto O’Rourke, Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez, and Julian Castro offer quite legitimate criticism of our field. It also falls to technologists, lawyers, and academics who have been appalled at, for example, The New York Times’ horrendously erroneous and dangerous coverage of Section 230, our best protection of freedom of expression on the internet in America. I’m delighted that CJR has hired independent ombudsmen for The Times, The Post, CNN, and MSNBC. But what about Fox and the rest of the field?

I’ve been wondering how one might structure an oversight board for journalism to take the place of all those lost ombudsmen, to take complaints about bad journalism, to deliberate thoughtful and constructive responses, and to build data about the journalistic performance and responsibility of specific outlets. That will be a discussion for another day, soon. But even with such a structure, journalism, too — and each news outlet — should offer covenants with the public containing their own promises and statements of higher goals. I don’t just mean following standards for behavior; I mean sharing our highest ambitions.

I think such covenants for Facebook (and social networks and internet platforms) and journalism would do well to start with the mission of journalism that I teach: to convene communities into respectful, informed, and productive conversation. Democracy is conversation. Journalism is — or should be — conversation. The internet is built for conversation. The institutions and companies that serve the public conversation should promise they will do everything in their power to serve and improve that conversation. So here is the beginning of the kind of covenant I would like to see from Facebook:

Facebook should promise to create a safe environment where people can share their stories with each other to build bridges to understanding and to make strangers less strange. (So should journalism.)

Facebook should promise to enable and empower new and diverse voices that have been deprived of privilege and power by existing, entrenched institutions. (Including journalism.)

Facebook should promise to build systems that reward positive, productive, useful, respectful behavior among communities. (So should journalism.)

Facebook should promise not to build mechanisms to polarize people and inflame conflict. (So should journalism.)

Facebook should promise to help inform conversations by providing the means to find reliable information. (Journalism should provide that information.)

Facebook should promise not to build its business upon and enable others to benefit from crass attempts to exploit attention. (So should the news and media industries.)

Facebook should warrant to protect and respect users’ privacy, agency, and dignity.

Facebook should recognize that malign actors will exploit weak systems of protection to drive people apart and so it should promise to guard against being used to manipulate and deceive. (So should journalism.)

Facebook should share data about its performance against these goals, about its impact on the public conversation, and about the health of that conversation with researchers. (If only journalism had such data to share.)

Facebook should build its business, its tools, its rewards, and its judgment of itself around new metrics that measure its contributions to the health and constructive vitality of the public conversation and the value it brings to communities and people’s lives. (So should journalism.)

Clearly, journalism’s covenants with the public should contain more: about investigating and holding power to account, about educating citizens and informing the public conversation, and more. That’s for another day. But here’s a start for both institutions. They have more in common than they know.

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