Any day now, Facebook will conclude its global hunt for 40 men and women wise and impartial enough to decide what speech should be allowed in the world’s digital town square. But any hope that this will end the political battering it has taken over charges of anti-right wing bias feels like wishful thinking on the company’s part.
The infallible 40 on its planned Oversight Board represent an attempt at a new kind of supranational governance. A supreme court for social discourse, set to rule on whether Facebook applies its own content rules fairly, it is meant to create a bulwark against claims that the company itself exercises too much control over the world’s speech. If it works, that could take the heat off Mark Zuckerberg, whose 58 per cent voting control gives him the ultimate say over what can be said on the most powerful media and communications platform the world has ever seen.
Dominant media companies have often had an uneasy relationship with the politicians of the day, who alternately try to woo them and cow them into submission. In a hyper-partisan era, and with monopolistic platforms whose very power opens them to political attack, this has reached an extreme.
Donald Trump, who has given a whole new meaning to the presidential bully pulpit, has not missed a chance to hammer the supposedly liberal-leaning internet giants. This week, he took another swing at Google, claiming that it deliberately suppressed conservative news sources in its search engine, costing him as many as 16m votes in the 2016 election (Google said that the research on which his claim was based had been “debunked” three years ago).
An independent review of potential anticonservative bias on Facebook, commissioned by the company, has just added to the heat. Rather than look at speech that is permitted or banned on the network, the report’s author — former Republican senator Jon Kyl — simply asked 133 conservative groups whether they thought there was any problem with the platform.
Surprise! They found bias at every turn, from how the company decides what constitutes “hate speech” to a perceived lack of conservatives on its board of directors (its members include Peter Thiel, who has been Mr Trump’s most outspoken supporter in the tech industry, and Marc Andreessen, one of Silicon Valley’s more libertarian-minded venture capitalists). No wonder the platforms are casting around for new ways to prove their impartiality.
But they are doomed to failure.
One potential answer — to be more transparent about how content decisions are made — runs up against inevitable limits. The algorithms which determine who sees what on sites such as Facebook and Google are destined to remain impenetrable black boxes.
Also, attempts to be clearer about how the companies enforce their own content rules will always leave some dissatisfied. The decisions are by their nature subjective, so it doesn’t matter how much effort Facebook puts into explaining its enforcement actions.
This is particularly true in the era of post-truth politics. Responding to the Kyl report this week, Facebook’s own in-house politician — Nick Clegg, the former UK deputy prime minister — said the social network was working hard to weed out “debunked hoaxes and clickbait”. These days, though, one person’s debunked hoax is another’s ground truth. Just ask the US president.
Faced with all of this, the idea of bringing in adjudicators who stand above the fray has a particular appeal. Facebook has been working on creating its independent oversight board to hear appeals against its own content rulings, hunting for people to provide enough diversity of views to keep everyone happy.
The risk though is that this will just push the partisan warfare up to a higher level. Split decisions on the board could simply expose disagreement, rather than resolve it.
With a board of 40, sheer weight of numbers may dilute any single viewpoint and reduce the risk of open partisan warfare. It might also provide cover for individual board members, who otherwise would be singled out for intense media scrutiny.
But that doesn’t mean the new panel of arbiters will be any more palatable to people on the wrong side of its decisions, or that Facebook will magically alight on new, agreed-upon limits on public discourse that will keep all sides happy. And it certainly will not end the browbeating it receives from politicians, who have nothing to lose in making the internet platforms their public punching bags.
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