Facebook, Instagram users can now ask 'oversight' panel to review decisions not to remove content

Natasha Lomas
·5 min read

Facebook's self-styled "Oversight Board" (FOB) has announced an operational change that looks intended to respond to criticism of the limits of the self-regulatory content-moderation decision review body: It says it's started accepting requests from users to review decisions to leave content up on Facebook and Instagram.

The move expands the FOB's remit beyond reviewing (and mostly reversing) content takedowns -- an arbitrary limit that critics said aligns it with the economic incentives of its parent entity, given that Facebook's business benefits from increased engagement with content (and outrageous content drives clicks and makes eyeballs stick).

"So far, users have been able to appeal content to the Board which they think should be restored to Facebook or Instagram. Now, users can also appeal content to the Board which they think should be removed from Facebook or Instagram," the FOB writes, adding that it will "use its independent judgment to decide what to leave up and what to take down".

"Our decisions will be binding on Facebook," it adds.

The ability to request an appeal on content Facebook wouldn't take down has been added across all markets, per Facebook. But the tech giant said it will take some "weeks" for all users to get access as it said it's rolling out the feature "in waves to ensure stability of the product experience".

While the FOB can now get individual pieces of content taken down from Facebook/Instagram -- i.e. if the Board believes it's justified in reversing an earlier decision by the company not to remove content -- it cannot make Facebook adopt any associated suggestions vis-à-vis its content moderation policies generally.

That's because Facebook has never said it will be bound by the FOB's policy recommendations; only by the final decision made per review.

That in turn limits the FOB's ability to influence the shape of the tech giant's approach to speech policing. And indeed the whole effort remains inextricably bound to Facebook, which devised and structured the FOB -- writing the Board's charter and bylaws, and hand picking the first cohort of members. The company thus continues to exert inescapable pull on the strings linking its self-regulatory vehicle to its lucrative people-profiling and ad-targeting empire.

The FOB getting the ability to review content "keep ups" (if we can call them that) is also essentially irrelevant when you consider the ocean of content Facebook has ensured the Board won't have any say in moderating -- because its limited resources/man-power mean it can only ever consider a fantastically tiny subset of cases referred to it for review.

For an oversight body to provide a meaningful limit on Facebook's power it would need to have considerably more meaty (i.e. legal) powers; be able to freely range across all aspects of Facebook's business (not just review user generated content); and be truly independent of the adtech mothership -- as well as having meaningful powers of enforcement and sanction.

So, in other words, it needs to be a public body, functioning in the public interest.

Instead, while Facebook applies its army of in-house lawyers to fight actual democratic regulatory oversight and compliance, it has splashed out to fashion this bespoke bureaucracy that can align with its speech interests -- handpicking a handful of external experts to pay to perform a content review cameo in its crisis PR drama.

Unsurprisingly, then, the FOB has mostly moved the needle in a speech-maximizing direction so far -- while expressing some frustration at the limited deck of cards Facebook has dealt it.

Most notably, the Board still has a decision pending on whether to reverse Facebook's indefinitely ban on former U.S. President Donald Trump. If it reverses that decision Facebook users won't have any recourse to appeal the restoration of Trump's account.

The only available route would, presumably, be for users to report future Trump content to Facebook for violating its policies -- and if Facebook refuses to take that stuff down, users could try to request an FOB review. But, again, there's no guarantee the FOB will accept any such review requests. (Indeed, if the board chooses to reinstate Trump that may make it harder for it to accept requests to review Trump content, at least in the short term (in the interests of keeping a diverse case file, so... ).

How to ask for a review after content isn't removed

To request the FOB review a piece of content that's been left up a user of Facebook/Instagram first has to report the content to Facebook/Instagram.

If the company decides to keep the content up Facebook says the reporting person will receive an Oversight Board Reference ID (a 10-character string that begins with "FB") in their Support Inbox -- which they can use to appeal its "no takedown" decision to the Oversight Board.

There are several hoops to jump through to make an appeal: Following on-screen instructions Facebook says the user will be taken to the Oversight Board website where they need to log in with the account to which the reference ID was issued.

They will then be asked to provide responses to a number of questions about their reasons for reporting the content (to "help the board understand why you think Facebook made the wrong decision").

Once an appeal has been submitted, the Oversight Board will decide whether or not to review it. The board only selects a certain number of "eligible appeals" to review; and Facebook has not disclosed the proportion of requests the Board accepts for review vs submissions it receives -- per case or on aggregate. So how much chance of submission success any user has for any given piece of content is an unknown (and probably unknowable) quantity.

Users who have submitted an appeal against content that was left up can check the status of their appeal via the FOB's website -- again by logging in and using the reference ID.

A further limitation is time, as Facebook notes there's a time limit on appealing decisions to the FOB.

"Bear in mind that there is a time limit on appealing decisions to the Oversight Board. Once the window to appeal a decision has expired, you will no longer be able to submit it," it writes in its Help Center, without specifying how long users have to get their appeal in (we asked Facebook to confirm this and it's 15 days).