Board member: “The challenge for the Board is to decide at what point your freedom of speech ends and the human rights of others take over”
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Anti-conservative bias by the social media giants which dominate our means of political communication has been a topic we’ve covered for many years.
The online speech problem is an outgrowth of the “campus to culture” problem, where anti-free speech campus practices have migrated to high tech companies. Opposing opinions are shouted down and cancelled, and the accusation of “hate speech” has become the tool by which those with power on campus wield their power to censor.
Part of the problem in dealing with the issue is the lack of transparency. We hear a lot of anecdotal evidence of bias, in which social media censorship almost invariable runs against non-leftists, but we don’t have access to the internal data from the social media giants.
The perception and evidence of bias is even more in focus in the age of pandemic. I wrote about this recently at Townhall, De-Platforming in a Pandemic:
Since the pandemic began, conflicting reports about coronavirus – its origins, its severity, its transmission, its treatment – have left a lot of Americans with questions about the guidance provided by purportedly politically agnostic and science-based organizations, such as the World Health Organization (WHO). Public skepticism is apparently justified, as recent reports from Germany’s intelligence agency confirm the WHO participated in a broad-scale cover-up after China pressured the WHO to conceal the human-to-human transmission of COVID-19, costing the world an estimated four to six weeks in preparation and response to this deadly virus.
But, for social media companies, vocalizing distrust of organizations like the WHO or even expressing a view counter to that of its leaders warrants swift censorship. In April, YouTube CEO Susan Wojcicki told CNN that her company would be de-platforming any user who posted content that went against WHO edicts. Disagreement with WHO was deemed “medically unsubstantiated” and promoting videos containing “authoritative information” from alternative but still authoritative medical sources was banned….
Yet so many of the experts acceptable to YouTube and Facebook and Twitter repeatedly have been wrong themselves. As Senator Rand Paul noted in questioning Dr. Anthony Fauci, coronavirus expert advice has resulted in “wrong prediction after wrong prediction after wrong prediction.”
There has been a potentially more damaging development at Facebook, the creation of an independent Oversight Board consisting initially of 20 people from around the world to make decisions on what content should be banned.
Politico reported on the announcement on May 6:
A former Republican U.S. federal judge, a Nobel Peace Prize laureate from Yemen and Denmark’s first female prime minister are among the members of a new Facebook oversight board, the company said Wednesday as it attempts to quell complaints about noxious content and ideological bias on its platforms.
CEO Mark Zuckerberg has said the board will have final say over how to handle controversial content such as hate speech. But the move is unlikely to end the 2 billion-member social network’s political difficulties in the U.S. and Europe….
Facebook said the board’s members were chosen for their expertise and diversity, having lived in more than 27 countries and speaking at least 29 languages. They also include former newspaper editors from the U.K. and Indonesia, former judges from Hungary and Colombia, ex-government officials from Israel and Taiwan, and human rights advocates from Pakistan and West Africa.
Five Americans were selected among the board’s 20 initial members, picked to reflect viewpoints from across the political spectrum.
What’s particularly freightening is not the people involved — assume the first 20 individuals are taking on the assignment in good faith — it’s the concept of outsourcing censorhip decisions that will limit American political speech to a board which, by Facebook’s own description, answers to no one other than the Board itself:
The Oversight Board was created to help Facebook answer some of the most difficult questions around freedom of expression online: what to take down, what to leave up, and why.
The board uses its independent judgment to support people’s right to free expression and ensure those rights are being adequately respected. The board’s decisions to uphold or reverse Facebook’s content decisions will be binding, meaning Facebook will have to implement them, unless doing so could violate the law.
The “Purpose” of the Board, according to Facebook, is to promote free speech, but in fact, the decisions it makes will not promote free speech, but determine which of that free speech should be restricted:
When fully staffed, the board will consist of 40 members from around the world that represent a diverse set of disciplines and backgrounds. These members will be empowered to select content cases for review and to uphold or reverse Facebook’s content decisions.
The board is not designed to be a simple extension of Facebook’s existing content review process. Rather, it will review a select number of highly emblematic cases and determine if decisions were made in accordance with Facebook’s stated values and policies.
The Board is separately endowed and not accountable to Facebook:
To further ensure the independence of its decision making, both the board and its administration are funded by an independent trust and supported by an independent company that is separate from the Facebook company.
What could go wrong? Everything.
Four of the initial Oversight Board members wrote an Op-Ed in The New York Times explaining this new venture (emphasis added):
Social media affects people’s lives in many ways, good and bad. Right now, as the world endures a health crisis, social media has become a lifeline for many people, providing valuable information and helping families and communities stay connected.
At the same time, we know that social media can spread speech that is hateful, harmful and deceitful. In recent years, the question of what content should stay up or come down on platforms like Facebook, and who should decide this, has become increasingly urgent….
The oversight board will focus on the most challenging content issues for Facebook, including in areas such as hate speech, harassment, and protecting people’s safety and privacy….
We are all independent of Facebook. And we are all committed to freedom of expression within the framework of international norms of human rights. We will make decisions based on those principles and on the effects on Facebook users and society, without regard to the economic, political or reputational interests of the company….
(In the initial phase users will be able to appeal to the board only in cases where Facebook has removed their content, but over the next months we will add the opportunity to review appeals from users who want Facebook to remove content.)
…. We will focus on identifying cases that have a real-world impact, are important for public discourse and raise questions about current Facebook policies. Cases that examine the line between satire and hate speech, the spread of graphic content after tragic events, and whether manipulated content posted by public figures should be treated differently from other content are just some of those that may come before the board.
Notice the focus on “hate speech”? This sounds all too familiar to those of us on campuses who have faced the false accusation that our differing views are “hate speech.” While the First Amendment doesn’t strictly apply to private platforms, we expect that the principles of the First Amendment will apply at least generally on platforms that purport to be places for widespread public communication.
Also note the focus on “international norms of human rights”– what norms are those? The norms of the United Nations Human Rights Council, a thoroughly corrupt, anti-free speech, anti-American, anti-Israel organization? The norms of international human rights NGOs like Amnesty International and Human Rights Watch which have strayed so far from their orignal missions as to be unrecognizable tools devoted to attacking Israel and western democracies? The history of international organizations is one of leftist anti-democratic anti-free speech drift that is anathema to our American foundational principles of freedom of speech.
Promotional videos posted by the Oversight Board on Twitter and Facebook demonstrate that our free speech rights will be balanced against the “human rights” of others. This all sounds so familiar to those of us who live in a campus culture where the right not to be offended is actually considered a right.
Social media companies face many challenges today, including protecting freedom of expression and human rights. Oversight Board Co-Chair Catalina Botero-Marino shares why she joined the Board to take on those challenges. pic.twitter.com/HuDLV3UUgE
— Oversight Board (@OversightBoard) May 8, 2020
A challenge for the Board will be to navigate the careful balance between freedom of expression and other human rights. pic.twitter.com/SsyI8LIU3N
— Oversight Board (@OversightBoard) May 8, 2020
Note also that the mission creap has set in, and the Oversight Board not only will rule on Facebook decisions to take down content, it will act to take down content on its own.
Facebook is critical to our political dialogue, which is why political campaigns devote so much attention and resources to Facebook advertising. A recent Report on the Re-Open Movement notes that Facebook interaction was critical:
The results show supporters were overwhelmingly sparked to action by Facebook postings. Despite the company shutting down notices about many protest events, it remains a hub for organizing.
This political interaction will now be at the mercy of an unaccountable international Oversight Board which inevitably will drift even further left than it already is upon its initial formation, and which by its members own description, wants to moderate our freedom of speech.
This makes the problem of social media censorhip all the more important to the political functioning of our nation. It was bad enough when Facebook teams and their fact-check organizations censored speech — at least there was some accountability at least in public opinion and the political sphere. Offloading these functions at an appellate level to an unaccountable international Board not committed to our First Amendment principles is not the answer.
Donald Trump is considering a panel to examine the problem:
President Trump is considering establishing a panel to review complaints of anticonservative bias on social media, according to people familiar with the matter, in a move that would likely draw pushback from technology companies and others.
The plans are still under discussion but could include the establishment of a White House-created commission that would examine allegations of online bias and censorship, these people said. The administration could also encourage similar reviews by federal regulatory agencies, such as the Federal Communications Commission and the Federal Election Commission, they said.
“Left-wing bias in the tech world is a concern that definitely needs to be addressed from our vantage point, and at least exposed [so] that Americans have clear eyes about what we’re dealing with,” a White House official said.
As I’ve stated in the many speeches I’ve given on the topic, my preference would be to let the market correct itself and to keep the government out of it. But given the market power concentrated in a handful of companies, the anecdotal evidence of anti-conservative bias, and now the outsourcing by Facebook of censorhip to an unaccountable international board, serious questions need to be asked and the problem cannot be ignored anymore.
[Featured Image: Facebook video screenshot]
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