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Facebook Oversight Board launched too late to oversee US election

Facebook’s delayed Oversight Board will reportedly be launched just before the US presidential election in November, although it is highly unlikely to handle cases relating to the election.

Facebook first announced its plans to establish an independent board to make final decisions on what content is appropriate to be hosted on the platform in January 2019. The creation of such a board would allow Facebook to continue to avoid being classed as a publisher, hence evading responsibility for divisive judgements.

The board will have the authority to review decisions made by Facebook content moderators which have already passed through an appeals process, review cases delegated by Facebook and recommend changes in policy. Decisions will be implemented within 90 days. Although the Oversight Board has been compared to a 'Supreme Court', precedent set by its decisions will be entirely non-binding.

The board will initially review only appeals over individual posts which have been removed, rather than controversial posts, ads and groups permitted to remain on the platform.

Oversight Board member and former Guardian editor-in-chief Alan Rusbridger told Reuters that the board would be aiming for an October launch this year, the original launch (planned for last year) having been further delayed by the coronavirus pandemic in 2020.

Julie Owono, a board member and director of Internet Sans Frontières, told the Guardian that the board would be ready “as soon as mid or late October at the very latest, unless there are some major technical issues that come up.”

A Facebook spokesperson said that while the board would launch before the US presidential election, the 90-day implementation period means that it is unlikely that cases related to the election – such as disinformation about mail-in voting and inflammatory comments about anti-racism protests promoted by US President Trump – will be put through the new process.

Rusbridger said that the first 20 members of the Oversight Board had discussed issues via remote meetings and gone through several trials, including a nudity case and a blasphemy case, but said that he “can’t imagine” the board will not have a case brought to them about political misinformation.

Meanwhile, Facebook critics have established a rival Oversight Board - dubbed the 'Real Facebook Oversight Board' - to review its content moderation practices. The board includes three heads of US civil rights groups, the former head of election integrity at Facebook and the former President of Estonia. The board will hold its initial meeting next week to discuss issues relating to the US election, such as voter suppression and misinformation.

Facebook’s relatively laissez-faire approach to content moderation has been blamed for fanning the flames of disinformation and violence, including through the use of Facebook to support ethnic cleansing in Myanmar, race riots in Ethiopia and a violent white nationalist movement in the US and other countries. Speaking before congress, a former Facebook director warned that Facebook is contributing to extremism in the US and “pushing [the country to] the brink of a civil war”.

This week, the Thai government initiated legal action against Facebook for refusing to comply with takedown orders, while activist group Avaaz accused it of having allowed a pro-Republican SuperPAC to target hundreds of misleading ads.

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