‘Frustrated’ Facebook Oversight Board May Seek to Examine Its Algorithm (or ‘Whatever’)

‘Frustrated’ Facebook Oversight Board May Seek to Examine Its Algorithm (or ‘Whatever’)

Facebook’s so-called “Supreme Court” is reportedly seeking the company’s permission to examine the underlying machine-learning models that determine which posts are visible or granted the most prominence in each Facebook user’s feed.

Alan Rusbridger, former editor of Britain’s Guardian newspaper and one of 20 people Facebook handpicked to sit on its Oversight Board, said Tuesday that, after only five months in operation, some members were already vexed by the constraints of reviewing controversial Facebook decisions on a case-by-case basis. In response, the board may try to shift some of its scrutiny over to how Facebook is itself influencing users, he said.

“We’re already a bit frustrated by just saying ‘take it down’ or ‘leave it up’,” Rusbridger told members of the House of Lords, Britain’s upper house of Parliament, on Tuesday.

He continued: “What happens if you want to make something less viral? What happens if you want to put up an interstitial? What happens if, without commenting on any high-profile current cases, you didn’t want to ban someone for life but wanted to put them in a ‘sin bin’ so that if they misbehave again you can chuck them off?”

Rusbridger, whose remarks were first reported by the Guardian, went on to suggest the Oversight Board may seek direct access to “the algorithm” employed by Facebook to curate individual users’ feeds.

The Guardian quotes Rusbridger, who stepped down as editor in 2014 following the paper’s explosive coverage of the Edward Snowden leaks, as saying: “At some point, we’re going to ask to see the algorithm, I feel sure, whatever that means. Whether we’ll understand when we see it is a different matter.”

Facebook did not respond when asked if it would consider granting the Oversight Board access to the algorithm or whether it would allow the board to select its own experts for such a review.

The board, which only began hearing cases last fall, is already facing intense pressure to hold the multi-billion dollar company accountable for what experts in online extremism call a veritable deluge of hate speech, disinformation, and conspiracy theories on its platform. U.S. civil rights leaders have accused Facebook executives of ignoring the problem — despite being repeatedly presented with evidence of violence and other real-world consequences affecting, disproportionately, religious minorities and communities of colour.

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In October, Democratic Reps. Anna Eshoo and Tom Malinowski accused Facebook of directly facilitating extremist violence across the country, saying the company’s inaction has resulted in U.S. citizens being deprived of their constitutional rights.

The lawmakers pointing specifically to the algorithm, which many researchers — and one of Facebook’s own internal studies — say divides users along ideological and political lines solely to purposefully drive up engagement, and thus profit. (Asked for comment at the time, Facebook did not respond.)

Rusbridger on Tuesday sought to portray the Oversight Board as fully independent from Facebook’s corporate structure, saying the board did not exist “to please” the company. The board has even ejected Facebook staff in the past, he said, when they attempted to sit in on its meetings.