How ironic. Facebook’s history is littered with products that it rushed out without considering consequences or abuses. The one product where Facebook determinedly did not move fast, but painstakingly game-planned every possible alternative, is the Oversight Board—the one where the user can get the last word over Facebook.
The stalled rollout has had its own weird consequence. The long lead time apparently created an opening for a guerilla alternative to the project—a collection of Facebook foes calling themselves the Real Facebook Oversight Board. Facebook’s long-promised solution, they claim, is “a corporate whitewashing exercise.” (I’m quoting from an explanation the group privately circulated last month.) This alt-board is sort of a murderer’s row of Facebook’s most persistent critics, including Cambridge Analytica scoopster Carole Cadwalladr; Facebook-investor-turned-Cassandra Roger McNamee; the author of the 700-page bible of surveillance capitalism, Shoshana Zuboff; Color of Change president Rashad Robinson; and the inspirational Philippine journalist Maria Ressa. At a press conference this week, the Real Board unveiled a series of demands, which they will elaborate upon in a series of weekly “emergency summits.”
The individual work and voices of some of the Real Oversight Board members have made an impact inside and outside Facebook. But those critiques might not land as hard in Menlo Park when delivered as raised-fist demands from a group of professed hostiles. Facebook seemed to confirm that to me in a statement: “While we welcome views from a broad range of stakeholders, this is a stunt driven by our longtime critics.” Still, if this group can draw attention to underreported missteps by Facebook, more power to them. Personally, I’m more interested to see if the really real Oversight Board gets radical enough to make substantial policy suggestions that shame Facebook into making deep changes
In the meantime, Facebook’s oversight isn’t limited to authorized or self-appointed boards. It comes from journalists, who consistently publish articles revealing the company’s shortcomings. It comes from researchers, who document systematic failures to suppress misinformation. It comes from those enforcing existing law—including antitrust, which may be used to curtail or even roll back Facebook’s acquisitions. It comes from future legislation, which may pass privacy protections that force changes in the way Facebook collects, aggregates, and uses the personal information of its users. It comes from its employees, who are increasingly bolder in expressing displeasure at how Facebook’s policies are empowering hate, authoritarianism, and misinformation. And it comes from users, who have the power to limit their time on the platform, or delete it outright.
Maybe one day all that oversight will lead Mark Zuckerberg to make the fundamental changes in Facebook that will satisfy his critics. It just hasn’t happened so far.
In early 2018, while interviewing Mark Zuckerberg for my book, he spoke about what would become the Facebook Oversight Board. Here’s an excerpt of what he said to me, cleaned up a little for clarity, in that exchange: