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Meta rescinds request for oversight of Russia-Ukraine policy

This is the first time that Meta has withdrawn a request made to the Oversight Board.

“Meta has informed the Oversight Board that the company would be withdrawing an earlier request for policy guidance concerning content moderation issues related to Russia’s ongoing war with Ukraine,” read a tweet thread by the Facebook Oversight Board on May 11. The company reportedly cited “ongoing safety and security concerns” as the reason for this action.

“While the Board understands these concerns, we believe the request raises important issues and are disappointed by the company’s decision to withdraw it,” it added. However, the specifics of Meta’s request, when it was made, and why it was withdrawn are still unclear.

This is the first time that Meta has withdrawn a request made to the Oversight Board, setting a precedent that could not only hurt its working relationship with the Board but also damage its commitment to transparency.

What led to the request from Meta?

In March, Facebook moderators were instructed to temporarily allow for calls of violence against Russian leaders and soldiers invading Ukraine. A few days later, Meta’s President of Global Affairs Nick Clegg clarified that the policy wasn’t meant to allow for violent speech targetted at Russian civilians or “a head of state.”

Soon after Clegg’s memo was leaked, Russia banned Facebook and Instagram in March and found Meta guilty of “extremist activity”. Meta’s messaging service WhatsApp is not affected by the ban.

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Meta made the initial request for advice from the Board in secret, The Verge had reported in April. The company didn’t publicly announce its request when it was made because “we don’t put undue pressure on the board to accept our case referrals over cases appeals from users,” Meta spokesperson Jeff Gelman said.

However, it has publicised earlier requests to the board. For instance, in September 2021, the Oversight Board was asked to weigh in on Facebook Cross-Check, a controversial programme that shielded celebrities, politicians, and other high-profile users from the moderation measures applicable to other users.

Activists are concerned that the Oversight Board is an eyewash

When Meta set up the Oversight Board in 2020, it was described as a body “modelled after the US Supreme Court for adjudicating the most controversial content moderation decisions on Facebook and Instagram.” On paper, the board can overturn Meta’s decisions on specific pieces of content referred by users. Its most significant decision to date has been upholding Meta’s ban on former US President Donald Trump which was imposed shortly after his supporters allegedly stormed the US Capitol building. At first, Trump was banned indefinitely but the Oversight Board reduced it to a two-year sentence.

Since 2020, the Oversight Board has heard 30 cases related to individual pieces of content and thorny issues like hate speech, nudity, and drug use. It has overturned Meta’s initial decision in most of those cases and recently led the company to change its doxxing policy for the better.

In its two-year existence, a primary criticism raised by activists is that the organisation is set up only to take heat for the company’s more unpopular decisions while Meta is free to ignore its recommendations. The Real Facebook Oversight Board that is set up by a group of activists and academics to serve as a proxy to the official Board, opined:

“Facebook is failing the test in the Ukraine conflict: disinformation about Ukrainian refugees is flooding Poland, while Russia’s RT and Sputnik media platforms are thriving with non-English content, racking up engagement on Meta’s platforms. Meta’s practices need to change to protect lives in the conflict — but its Oversight Board won’t have any role.”

It also called on Meta to take the following steps :

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  • Fix the algorithm, up-ranking credible and trusted news sources in the weeks leading up to and following an election.
  • Make an equal investment in non-English language content moderation, including Russian and 25 other languages.
  • Let academic researchers back in, allowing outside, independent scholars to monitor Facebook’s content around the 2022 elections and the Russia-Ukraine conflict. 

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