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Give control back to your users, scholars tell Facebook

Facebook Mark Zuckerberg

In a new position paper, scholars from Oxford and Stanford recommended nine measures Facebook should take to make itself a better forum for free speech and democracy.

The report, titled “GLASNOST! Nine ways Facebook can make itself a better forum for free speech and democracy”, was jointly published by the Reuters Institute for the Study of Journalism and the Oxford University. The scholars, headlined by the historian Timothy Garton Ash, recommended Facebook take concrete steps related to three key aspects of the social network’s operation: content policy and moderation practices, news feed, and governance.

The starting premise of the report is that, with over 2.2 billion active users and being in the centre of past and present controversies and conversations, Facebook has gone beyond the stage where it could choose “between self-regulation and no regulation”. Decisions made inside Facebook could have strong political, social, and cultural impact on the world outside of it. “A single small change to the News Feed algorithm, or to content policy, can have an impact that is both faster and wider than that of any single piece of national (or even EU-wide) legislation,” the report says.

Instead, the authors argued, Facebook needs to make itself more transparent with both its policies and the interpretation and implementation mechanisms of these policies to the outside world including both its users, its customers, and other institutions, and engage more with regulators and the civil society, academia, and NGOs.

The authors recognised that Facebook has made efforts in all the three aspects over the past few years, especially after the Cambridge Analytica case was uncovered. They argued however that more should be done. Specifically the authors suggested the following:

Regarding “content policy and the moderation of political speech”, Facebook should

  • Tighten community standards wording on hate speech
  • Hire more and contextually expert content reviewers
  • Increase ‘decisional transparency’
  • Expand and improve the appeals process

Targeting at “News Feed”, the authors suggested that in order to move “towards more diverse, trustworthy political information”, Facebook should

  • Provide meaningful News Feed controls for users
  • Expand context and fact-checking facilities

When it comes to the company’s “governance”, the report recognises that Facebook has adopted “cautious glasnost” recently but in order to grow “from Transparency to Accountability” the company should

  • Establish regular auditing mechanisms
  • Create an external content policy advisory group
  • Establish an external appeals body

Admittedly, Facebook is far from being the only culprit. The authors also agreed that “many of the problems identified here are also found on other platforms, such as YouTube and Twitter.” Additionally, Facebook does have policies related to content and its moderation, though their interpretation or implementation could be called into question. Platforms like Twitter on the other hand, barely have a policy or standard practice in place.

Despite the authors’ claim that the “goal of this report is to focus on areas that Facebook itself can feasibly improve now”, it would require radical changes on Facebook’s side to put any of these recommendations into practice, both how the company is run, and how it is judged. The authors argued that “ideally, the user interface and experience on Facebook should be designed to promote active, informed citizenship, and not merely clickbait addiction for the commercial benefit of Facebook, the corporation.” However, commercial benefit is the most important index how a business is evaluated. In addition to stressing the company’s responsibilities beyond business returns, the authors could also remind it of the commercial damage from not acting in a responsible way. For example, advertisers would run away from the platform if a Cambridge Analytica type of scandal were to happen again.

The changes needed, as the authors also agreed, are easier said than done. Some suggestions are reasonable. For example, the report suggested Facebook, and other social platforms, consider industry wide self-regulating mechanisms following the model of the Financial Industry Regulatory Authority (FINRA), which oversees brokerage firms and the securities industry in the US. But it also agrees that it is hard to define the “industry” for the social networks. Other suggestions are much harder for Facebook and others to take. For example the report requests Facebook to open its data and, more importantly, its algorithms, which are the most guarded secrets in all internet companies.

The choice of the report’s title is also interesting. “Glasnost” is Russian for “openness, transparency”. Together with “perestroika”, Russian for “reform”, the concepts were popularised by the last Soviet leader Mikhail Gorbachev. The report suggested that, to achieve real change instead of merely glorified PR, “beyond glasnost, we need perestroika” from Facebook, a line almost surely from Professor Garton Ash, a leading scholar in Central and Eastern European history. If the young executives at Menlo Park are unaware of the historical connotation of these concepts, they may want to know that by embracing Glasnost and Perestroika, Gorbachev brought the Soviet empire to its demise.


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