Facebook's Oversight Board Says Company Lied About Whitelist

Recent revelations show the limits of the governing body's authority

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September 22, 2021

Facebook’s Oversight Board has accused the company of lying to it about policies that let high-profile users skirt the platform's rules.

In a statement Tuesday, members of the independent body slammed Facebook’s "opaque rules" and criticized the company for lying about its "cross-check" system, which the Wall Street Journal reported exempts at least 5.8 million prominent users from content moderation rules. Facebook formed the independently funded Oversight Board in 2020 to regulate the social media site's content moderation decisions.

The persistence of the cross-check system shows the limits of the Oversight Board. Though formally independent, the board does not have the power to compel Facebook to comply with investigations or requests for documents. Facebook has ignored Oversight Board recommendations, including that it censor fewer posts about COVID-19.

Facebook has been aware for years that the cross-check system would be a public relations disaster. A 2019 internal review called the cross-check system "not publicly defensible." According to the board, Facebook refused requests to explain the criteria by which pages and accounts were added to the system.

Facebook convened the Oversight Board in 2020, appointing 20 members, including prominent constitutional scholars and former European heads of state. In his letter announcing the board, Facebook CEO Mark Zuckerberg said, "We’re committing to providing the board with the information and resources it needs to make informed decisions."

So far, the board has ruled mainly on content moderation issues abroad and has largely taken a free-speech stance. But in its most high-profile case, it upheld Facebook’s ban of former president Donald Trump, although it called on Facebook to create a more fairly applied public safety standard.

Last week, the Journal reported that Facebook has repeatedly lied to Congress about the dangers of its platform for teens. In one instance, Facebook claimed conducting research on the question was too difficult. The company has secretly studied teen behavior on Instagram for years and concluded that the platform harms a substantial minority of teens.

Facebook also took heat from Congress on Tuesday after sending an unprepared executive to a Senate Judiciary hearing on dangers to teens. At one point during the hearing, Sen. Ted Cruz (R., Texas) cited internal Facebook research showing 6 percent of teens attribute their suicidal ideation to Instagram. Facebook representative Steve Satterfield responded that he believed the company's products were "safe."

Other senators also took shots at Facebook during the hearing. Sen. Mike Lee (R., Utah) said Facebook was acting like a monopolist, and Marsha Blackburn (R., Tenn.) and Richard Blumenthal (D., Conn.) said they’d been in touch with the Facebook whistleblower who exposed the cross-check system. Blackburn also said she’d reviewed evidence that the Chinese Communist Party uses Facebook apps to deliver malware to the phones of Uyghurs.

Despite the pressure, Facebook has forged ahead with aggressive PR campaigns. In one campaign that began this year, code-named Project Amplify, Facebook planted positive stories about itself in users’ news feeds. Some of those stories were written by Facebook.