Conservatives Skeptical Facebook Oversight Board Comment Process Will Curb Censorship

Conservative groups expressed doubt that the Facebook Oversight Board will direct the platform to stop its censorship in reaction to any critical comments it receives about a program that gives prominent users preferential treatment.

The Oversight Board for Facebook is collecting public comments through Friday on Facebook’s “cross-check” system, under which the platform maintains a “VIP list” of high-profile users whose content isn’t moderated as strictly as others.

Facebook announced the formation of the Oversight Board in June 2019, after workshops and roundtables by the tech giant’s employees. The board’s stated purpose was to determine what about Facebook Community Standards is fair and transparent, and what isn’t. The board is akin to a “Supreme Court” for content review. 

The Facebook Oversight Board decided to uphold the platform’s ban of former President Donald Trump in May 2021. After the decision, MRC Founder and President L. Brent Bozell said it’s “[a]nother win for censorship and the suppression of dissenting voices, and a loss for free speech.”

The Oversight Board called for more transparency from Facebook in October, after a story revealed the “cross-check” program in September. The London-based board, a mostly global, left-skewed entity that includes leaders of global advocacy organizations, NGOs, think tanks, universities and other organizations, accepted a subsequent Facebook request to review the cross-check program and suggest potential changes. The Oversight Board anticipates posting those recommendations after the public comment period concludes.

But any forthcoming board recommendations won’t be binding, and representatives of conservative groups told MRC’s Free Speech America that they are skeptical that Facebook will take discernible action to promote equal free-speech rights for users across its platform.

“I think conservatives have to limit their expectations when they think of how any of their feedback could be implemented or put into practice,” Kara Frederick, research fellow in technology policy for The Heritage Foundation, told MRC’s Free Speech America.

Frederick, a former Facebook executive, pointed to heavy-handed Facebook censorship of conservatives, and consistent denials by company executives of suppression of right-wing viewpoints. The company isn’t thoroughly researching the censorship issue in good faith, and regularly ignores conservative complaints about its content moderation, she said.

One of the questions the board posed in its comment request is how Meta can improve the transparency of its cross-check system, which applies to Meta platforms Facebook and Instagram. But the board’s “transparency report” for the third quarter of 2021 omits information about how it selects content moderation decisions it reviews, Claremont Institute Digital Media Manager Nick Short said in an interview.  

The report also referenced UN guidance as a basis for the Oversight Board’s review decisions around “hate speech,” but includes no mention of the U.S. Constitution. This is a tacit endorsement of global human rights standards above the supreme law of this nation.

The loyalty to UN standards could set a precedent letting authoritarian governments cite eradication of “hate speech” as justification for stifling dissent, Short said.

Andrea Widburg, deputy editor of the conservative American Thinker, noted that the transparency report didn’t define “hate speech.”

The report also didn’t recommend that Meta arrive at a universal definition of “hate speech” to advise all of its users.

To be fair, the report called on Meta to publish more examples of comments that violate the company’s Hate Speech Community Standards.

American Thinker gave up on working with Facebook. It discontinued its account after the 2020 election, after readers complained that the platform was suppressing the New York Post’s bombshell story about reported disgusting content on Hunter Biden’s laptop.

Widburg said it is difficult for her to believe that Meta and its Oversight Board will ever act in good faith on the issue of free speech, as Facebook has “pre-censored” her publication so vigorously that it blocks the upload of some articles.

“I periodically get emails from people saying Facebook refused to post your article,” Widburg said. “What’s interesting is they don’t say, ‘I posted it and then I got a warning,’ or ‘I got a tag saying that [our fact-checking team] has said that this is untrue.’ They can’t even post.”

Facebook has suppressed the account of the pro-Christian American Family Association (AFA) as well, AFA Vice President of Operations Walker Wildmon noted.

The group’s page has hovered at 250,000 likes for about six years, despite growing by thousands or even tens of thousands of likes per month before that, Wildmon said.

He pointed to Meta’s consultations with the Southern Poverty Law Center (SPLC), which has pegged AFA as a “designated hate group.”

“That has no doubt played into Facebook and other platforms’ decision-making when it comes to not just pulling down pages, but also censoring content,” Wildmon said.

So, when the Oversight Board refers to “hate speech” throughout its report without a cogent, even-handed definition, it’s hard to believe that Meta will have any incentive to implement pro-free-speech policies.

“There’s no doubt that that ‘hate group’ or ‘hate speech,’ terminology and definition and label has driven groups like Facebook to feel compelled to begin regulating the speech of [Christian and political opposition] groups,” Wildmon said.

The Oversight Board’s governing document gives a qualified definition for free speech.

“Free expression is paramount, but there are times when speech can be at odds with authenticity, safety, privacy, and dignity,” the second paragraph of the Oversight Board Charter states. “Some expression can endanger other people’s ability to express themselves freely. Therefore, it must be balanced against these considerations.”

Oversight Board spokesman John Taylor told MRC’s Free Speech America that the board wants to hear comments from as many organizations as possible, which will inform its forthcoming recommendations, which will focus broadly on Facebook’s cross-check practices.

“When it comes to media and news organizations, we’ve talked to everybody,” he said. “And when I say everybody, I mean, everybody. I’ve talked to a diverse group of news organizations across the United States, really, around the world.”

Though the Oversight Board may not reverse or acknowledge the platform’s deep bias anytime soon, conservatives should still share their comments on Facebook’s content moderation and censorship, The Heritage Foundation’s Frederick said.

“Conservatives should never miss an opportunity to raise their voices or provide input,” she said. “Conservatives have to get these platforms to acknowledge that this is a problem, and that it’s pervasive.”

Conservatives are under attack. Contact Facebook headquarters at (650) 308-7300 and demand the platform scrap its cross-check system and allow free speech online. If you have been censored, contact us using CensorTrack’s contact form, and help us hold Big Tech accountable.

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