Jan. 6, 2022

What would America’s founders think of Facebook's Oversight Board?

Technology History

Last spring, Facebook sort of kicked President Donald Trump off its website. It sort of did this by asking its Oversight Board to weigh in on whether it was appropriate for him to continue using their publishing tools in the wake of the Capitol insurrection on January 6 that he arguably encouraged. (Happy anniversary by the way.)

Facebook created the board to make policy decisions relating to the most sensitive and controversial content shared on its platform, whether that involve things like nudity, hate speech or misinformation. Its members represent a varied group of thinkers and professionals from across the globe. They include professors of law, human rights and freedom of speech experts, a Nobel Peace Prize Laureate and a former primer minister. The board's website currently lists 20 members[1], though in a New York Times op-ed, a board representative said that they'd be fully staffed at 40.[2] Facebook says that the decisions the board comes to are "binding."

The board ultimately put the Trump question back to Facebook and told it to strengthen its own ambiguous policies around the speech of famous and influential people. So there's that.

Though it didn't take, it is interesting that the company asked the board to decide the matter at all. There is no regulation beyond Section 230 that polices social media content, though Facebook has taken out full-paged ads to beg for it. As it is, the company draws its own lines in the sand as for what it considers the acceptable use of its tools.

By not drawing those lines, Facebook may be contributing to a sense that certain things — like nipples — are beyond its ability to make a judgement. Maybe that's intentional. Indeed Facebook might like to force the countries it operates in to be the ones drawing those lines. That would be a way to sidestep the nearly impossible duty of moderating the content of half the globe, nuances and all. But it's also a way to forfeit being perceived as a leader, if in fact the company would like to be seen that way.

Given its huge user base, money, and influence, I think that Facebook is a leader, whether it wants the job or not. (That's my premise, should you choose to accept. It hopefully won't self-destruct in ten seconds.)

What's more, there's been a fair amount of popular writing in the past year that frames the company as not just a leader, but as something more like a country.[3] Even some of Facebook's own recent communications have threatened that attempts to break it up via antitrust suits would be a gift to China.[4] That sounds like country talk.

And if it is a country-like thing, and a leader, then the decisions it makes or abstains from have ripple effects on the whole world and are worthy of scrutiny.

Onto the scrutiny. We expect leaders to make decisions. We expect them to seek council while deliberating. But the thought of wholly devolving a thorny issues to an external body — like Facebook is doing its board — doesn't sound like a typical move from the leader playbook.

What does this have to do with the Founding Fathers?

Nothing in the literal sense — the idea of a smartphone or social media would likely have blown the tops off of all of them. (Except Franklin.) However, I recently came across a passage in Ralph Ketcham's biography on James Madison where both he and Thomas Jefferson where asked join an Oversight Board of sorts, and the parallels are interesting.

Around the 1820s, a popular American concern was how to coexist with Native Americans. (Well, the concern was actually how to make Native Americans assimilate to the system and culture being thrust upon them.) There was some concern by the thrusting culture that tribes might align themselves with far-away powers — like England or Spain — and destabilize American interests. (Some did.)

So, instead of, you know, meeting with the Native Americans from a place of respect and empathy, the U.S. government pondered how it might get them all to just assimilate.

Early American geographer Jedidiah Morse toured through and reported on Native territories at the bequest of the Secretary of War on Indian Affairs.[5] Morse ultimately sensed that this issue was beyond the ability of a single administration, and ventured to form a national society (an Oversight Board of sorts) charged with finding the best answer to this single question.

It would be a big board.

To lead the Indians into the ways of white civilization, Morse proposed a society of ex-Presidents, virtually all officers of the federal government, an array of state officials, Indian agents, and military officers, as well as all the college professors and clergymen in the nation.[6]

It's not quite the Facebook Oversight Board of 20, but it's a similar idea: Here is a group of learned people of different backgrounds to solve our problem.

When ex-presidents Jefferson and Madison got their invitations, they came down on exact opposites sides of the matter.

To Jefferson, the idea of the board was entirely undemocratic. Just what are elected governments for if not to figure out how to assimilate Native Americans? What would be next? He explained his concern in a letter to Madison.

…associations so extensive as to grapple with and controul the government…are dangerous machines, and should be frowned upon in every regulated government. (The United States government was already pursing the issue)…with superior means, superior wisdom, and under limits of legal prescription.[7]

Madison on the other hand welcomed the board of diverse thinkers, though he later admitted that the sheer number of proposed participants — estimated by Jefferson at 8,500 — would render the board's decision-making abilities moot. (Camels, horses, committees, etc.)

Decision Points Theater

A more contemporary, and less racist exploration of outsourcing the decisions of a U.S. president can be found at George W. Bush's presidential library in Dallas. There you'll see a permanent exhibit called Critical Decisions. [8] Visitors are asked to put themselves into the shoes of the former president as he considered dilemmas like whether or not to invade Iraq, or how the federal government should respond to Hurricane Katrina.

The tourists (decision makers) step into an auditorium that looks something like the set of Who Wants to Be a Millionaire? and view dramatized videos of intelligence officer briefings related to the various issues. The tourist is then asked to consider, "What would you do?" before ultimately logging their decision via the touchscreen in front of them.

What is leadership for?

Who cares about what someone who isn't the president would have done when faced with a presidential decision? If Jefferson's writings on Morse's society are any indication, I can only assume he would be glad to know that the touchscreens in Decision Points Theater at least don't offer a third option:

We should all care to understand why leaders makes the decisions they make. We of course expect them to seek council and incorporate intelligence into their own thinking. It is presumably a leader's ability to fill their mind and to then discern that gives them the support they enjoy. But at the end of the day, what they decide is their call.

In a recent interview, former Twitter CEO Dick Costolo talked about the difficulties of moderating content. And how during his time at Twitter, it often came down to making the best situational decision rather than crafting the best policy.

It's hard. You come up with this set of rules, terms of service, and they're applied equally to every account on the platform. And, I think that's wrong. People may say, "If you make it subjective, it's really going to be the Wild West," but the reality is, it ends up being subjective anyway, because someone comes up and walks the very fine line of…is this a violation of that term or not.[9]

Facebook's "superior means"

Facebook's Oversight Board offers the opportunity for the company to learn from diverse thinkers from the many places of the world where it operates. The company should savor the board's insights, and seek to grow its membership in a representative way. But the board should not be the final arbiter and issue "binding" rulings.

The company should lean on its "superior means" — as Jefferson might say — to seek council from its board of experts, make its own decisions, and then defend them until it no longer makes sense to do so. Not everyone will be happy. Critics will inevitably ask why "this content or this user were banned but not that one?" When asked to defend its gray-area decisions, Facebook at least wouldn't have to say, "because the Oversight Board said so." They could say, "because we said so."