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The unbearable slowness of Meta's Oversight Board
A 234-day wait to get a ruling in a case about incitement to violence suggests that something important is broken
Today let’s talk about one of the most important cases that Meta’s Oversight Board has heard to date — and how the process ultimately revealed a fundamental problem with with the board’s operations.
Our story takes place in Cambodia, which for the past 38 years has been ruled by a dictator named Hun Sen. Since first taking office, the Cambodian leader has gradually consolidated power, regularly using violence and intimidation to suppress any opposition. This year, his party stood for an election that both the United States and European Union said was neither free nor fair.
One reason the election wasn’t fair is that Hun Sen disqualified the leading opposition party from participating in the vote. But it wasn’t enough to ensure his continued dominance through undermining the democratic process — he chose to intimidate and persecute his opponents as well.
On January 8, in a speech that streamed live on his Facebook page, the prime minister — who has 14 million followers on the platform — took the occasion of a ribbon-cutting at a highway refurbishment project to threaten his enemies.
Here’s Agence-France Presse:
Speaking at a ceremony in Kampong Cham province, he said political challengers would need to choose between the courts and violence if they criticized his ruling Cambodian People's Party (CPP).
"There are only two options — one is using legal action, the other is using sticks... What do you want?" he said. "Either you face legal action in court or I rally CPP people for a demonstration and beat you guys up."
He also instructed lawyers to monitor speeches by his rivals.
"We won't let you accuse us of being thieves all the time. The CPP cannot accept being called thieves who steal votes. We must sue whoever says that," Hun Sen added.
At least five users reported the video for inciting violence. Upon its first review of the video, Meta determined that Hun Sen had not violated the platform’s community guidelines. On a second review, the company found that the video actually did violate its guidelines, but decided to leave it up under a “newsworthiness exemption.” (The idea is that if an elected official says something really horrible, sometimes it’s better to draw attention to that than to pretend it never happened — sunlight is the best disinfectant and all that.º
At the same time, Meta thought it was a close enough call that it referred the case to its Oversight Board — an independent body that can make binding decisions about what posts stay up on Facebook, and which come down.
Meta did not design the board to make decisions quickly, even in times of crisis. But by any standard, the Cambodia case has unfolded at a glacial pace. The board didn’t even accept the case until March, two months after the video had been posted. By then, it had already been viewed 600,000 times. Meanwhile, by then a rash of political violence had unfolded in Cambodia.
Here’s a report from Human Rights Watch on those attacks:
Since that speech, seven reported acts of violence have targeted a total of six opposition party members. Three instances occurred following a Candlelight Party planning meeting in Phnom Penh on March 18 for the July elections. Four additional cases were reported following a March 20 visit by party activists to the United Nations human rights office in Phnom Penh and their participation in a public gathering calling for the release of political prisoners. […]
The attacks had multiple similarities, suggesting that the same people were responsible for all of them. All four attacks were carried out by two men in dark clothes with dark motorcycle helmets riding a single motorbike, with the driver remaining on the bike while the passenger assaulted the victim. In three attacks, the assailants used an extendable metal baton as a weapon. In two attacks, the victims could hear the attackers confirming the victims’ identity moments before they were assaulted. No money or valuables were stolen. All of those interviewed said they believe they were targeted because of their participation in Candlelight Party activities.
Nearly four months after the violence began, and almost seven months after the original video was posted, the board finally got around to making a decision. It called for the video to be removed, and for Hun Sen’s Facebook and Instagram accounts to be suspended for at least six months — the first time the board had called for a head of state to be penalized in that way.
Under their arrangement, Meta has 60 days to respond to the board. Today, the company did. And while Meta removed had video from the prime minister’s page in June, in the end it decided not to suspend him.
“We have removed the content that was the subject of this case and, consistent with our policies, applied appropriate account-level penalties associated with that action,” the company said in a blog post. “There is not currently any basis to suspend Hun Sen’s account under our policies.” (The board didn’t respond to my request for comment, though it is based in the United Kingdom and my message may have reached them after hours.)
There’s a nuanced detail here about the decision. The board argued Hun Sen should have been suspended under a protocol that Meta introduced after the January 6 attacks in the United States that penalizes world leaders more heavily if they incite violence during times of unrest. (This policy was the reason that Donald Trump’s account was suspended for three years.) Meta decided Hun Sen’s remarks here didn’t fit that policy, since they came at the groundbreaking ceremony for that highway refurbishment.
“Elections are a crucial part of democracy and social media companies must ensure their platforms are not misused in ways which threaten to undermine them,” the spokesperson added.
At this point, if you’re asking “what is the point of all this?” — well, so am I.
On the whole, I’ve been enthusiastic about Meta’s Oversight Board experiment. Given how much vital political speech takes place on the company’s platforms, and how messy content moderation is at any scale, establishing an independent body to consider user appeals marked a step in the right direction. Before the board, every content decision ultimately rolled up to one person — CEO Mark Zuckerberg. After the board, an independent body could intervene to reverse decisions that it found to be in contradiction of the company’s policies.
But as I wrote here last October, the board has at times been shockingly lazy — as in that quarter, when out of the 347,000 cases submitted by users for appeal, it chose to hear a measly three of them. And while both it and Meta tout long lists of policy recommendations it has made that the company has adopted, the fact that I wouldn’t have been able to name any without first looking them up suggests that for the most part the board is often only nibbling at the margins of relevance.
Nowhere is this more evident than in the Cambodia case, which dragged on for the better part of the year before the board could muster the energy to tell Meta to remove a single post.
And sure, these cases can be complicated. They need to be translated into the relevant languages. Public comments must be solicited and considered. The board consults with experts. It takes time.
Moreover, had Meta followed the board’s recommendation, Cambodia could have retaliated by banning the platform in the country altogether — arguably to the detriment to the millions of Cambodians who rely on it for various needs. That’s worth serious deliberation.
But when platforms are considering questions related to credible incitement of violence — particularly incitements coming from a head of state — they should resolve them in far less than the 234 days it took the Oversight Board. There are millions of real people who are depending on them. And the board’s members, many of whom were drawn from academia, are still treating the cases referred to them as abstract thought experiments to be debated casually in between graduate seminars.
In Cambodia, the damage is done. The rivals were, in the end, beaten with sticks. Hun Sen’s party “won” the sham election. Last month he said he would soon install his son as prime minister, but would continue to serve as the country’s strongman in chief as the ruler of its sole major political party for years to come.
Earlier this summer, anticipating that he would be banned, Hun Sen briefly decamped to other platforms. He focused his attention on Telegram, with its large user base and famous indifference to content moderation.
But the storm passed, and now the prime minister is posting to Facebook as enthusiastically as ever. Over the past day, his account was updated more than a dozen times — revealing, if nothing else, that at least one player in this platform drama understands the importance of speed and scale.
Want to hang out with me in person? Applications are open for this year’s Code Conference, hosted by me, The Verge’s Nilay Patel, and CNBC’s Julia Boorstin. Join us for live, on-stage journalism with X/Twitter CEO Linda Yaccarino, GM CEO Mary Barra, Microsoft CTO Kevin Scott, and many more speakers to come. It’s all happening September 26th and 27th at The Ritz-Carlton, Laguna Niguel. Follow the latest here.
Google Cloud Next 2023
An unusual amount of of product news from the company’s usually sleepy enterprise software conference. Among the highlights:
Google said it would incorporate AI models from Meta and Anthropic into its enterprise cloud platform so business customers can choose from a wide variety of competing tools. (Davey Alba and Julia Love / Bloomberg)
Google integrated its Duet AI technology into Meet for generating meeting notes, call summaries and, down the line, a new feature where the AI bot can attend a meeting on your behalf. Duet AI will even auto-generate text about what you might have wanted to bring up at the meeting you’re skipping, which sounds … risky. If you lose your job this way let us know. (Jay Peters / The Verge)
Google announced a new AI watermarking tool called SynthID that is invisible to the human eye and more resistant to tampering to help better identify deepfakes. (Gerrit De Vynck / The Washington Post)
Google revamped Chat, its Microsoft Teams and Slack competitor, with a new design, more robust AI capabilities and a video chat feature. Alright, but just to be on the safe side let’s rename it a few more times.(David Pierce / The Verge)
Sen. Chuck Schumer will hold the first in a series of AI regulatory discussions with industry leaders, starting with Elon Musk, Nvidia’s Jensen Huang, Google’s Sundar Pichai, OpenAI’s Sam Altman and Microsoft CEO Satya Nadella. The meeting will also include representatives from civil rights and labor groups. (Cecilia Kang / The New York Times)
U.S. Commerce Secretary Gina Raimondo’s visit to China this week has raised the question of what the Biden administration will do about TikTok, with a ban proving unpopular with voters and potentially unconstitutional. (Sapna Maheshwari and David McCabe / The New York Times)
Meta performed the “biggest single takedown” it has ever conducted of a foreign influence operation when it removed thousands of pro-China Facebook accounts, pages and groups spanning a four-year campaign. Separately, a pro-Russian campaign was removed after it was discovered creating thousands of fake news websites at separate domains designed to confuse people. (Sheera Frenkel / The New York Times)
Meta’s Canadian news ban has had virtually no effect on the number of daily Facebook users and in-app engagement in the country, according to data from multiple third-party trackers. It’s almost like news publishers benefited financially from Meta making their links available to its user base. (Katie Paul and Steve Scherer / Reuters)
X said it would resume selling political ads, in a reversal of a policy instituted by former CEO Jack Dorsey back in 2019. A decision that was surely rooted in principle and not in an advertising business in free fall. (Mark Sullivan / Fast Company)
The U.N.’s human rights office said criminal organizations have forced hundreds of thousands of people in Southeast Asia to participate in scams involving online dating, investing and gambling. The gangs are most active in Cambodia and Myanmar. (Associated Press)
YouTube said it would allow creators who violate its platform policies a way to wipe out the warning by taking an educational course before the warning is upgraded to an official strike. Like traffic school for creators! Amazing. (Sarah Perez / TechCrunch)
Data annotating company Scale AI, which owns a contract labor platform called Remotasks, reportedly underpays overseas workers and in some cases delays or withholds payments. Scale AI sells its services to Meta, Microsoft and OpenAI, among others. (Rebecca Tan and Regine Cabato / The Washington Post)
Snapchat added an AI selfie feature called Dreams that lets users upload a series of portraits and then generate eight images with a variety of themes. The first pack is available for free, but each new one costs $1. (Alex Heath / The Verge)
Meta began to roll out out legs to users of its Quest VR headsets, but the feature is currently only being tested on avatars in Quest Home and not yet in Horizon Worlds. Legs are still in beta. (Wes Davis / The Verge)
The growth of Twitch rival Kick has created a rift between creators who prefer it over Twitch’s ever-changing revenue share policies, and those who disapprove of Kick’s connection to gambling. (Olivia Balsamo / CNBC)
Blockchain-based social app Friend.tech, which lets users buy and sell tokenized shares of people’s profiles, is seeing a major drop in new user sign-ups while also contending with an influx of bots. The bar for user experience in crypto development continues to be on the floor. (Emily Nicolle / Bloomberg)
WhatsApp launched a new native Mac app with support for video and audio calling and a refreshed design. (Ivan Mehta / TechCrunch)
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