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Facebook’s fight against outside oversight

October 29, 2020, 12:25 PM UTC

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A group of academics, civil rights experts, and activist have spent a month pressuring Facebook to do more to fight misinformation, voter suppression, and hate speech ahead of the U.S. election. And with the end of voting now less than a week away, the group, called the Real Facebook Oversight Board, is more vocal than ever.

“One of our main strategic goals is to be a complete pain in the ass to Facebook,” Carole Cadwalladr, the board’s spokeswoman, told me.

The group quickly cobbled itself together last month as an “emergency response to an emergency situation,” Cadwalladr said, referring to how, in the board’s view, Facebook had failed to police its service ahead of the election. Since then, the board has demanded that Facebook try harder by deleting posts that prematurely claim one of the candidates has won and better enforcing its prohibition against hate groups and inciting violence.

The unofficial board has hosted virtual events, including live commentary during Wednesday’s Senate hearing at which Facebook CEO Mark Zuckerberg testified to a committee rife with skeptical legislators. This week, the board also hosted a virtual talk with a current Facebook content moderator and two former ones who spoke about the difficulty of ensuring that more than 2 billion Facebook users behave.

Allison Trebacz, who worked as a Facebook moderator in 2017 and 2018, worried during the event about the company’s election game plan. Trebacz hasn’t worked as moderator during a U.S. presidential election and isn’t privy to current internal conversations at Facebook. But she has first-hand knowledge of what it’s like to be on the frontlines. She said policy gaps and unanswered questions often make content moderators’ jobs “outrageously difficult.” “I think it’s going to be chaos,” she said.

Facebook, however, is trying to reassure the public that it’s doing everything it can to protect the election’s integrity. The company regularly releases reports about bad actors it has booted off its service for coordinating to mislead people about their intentions. The company has also tightened some of its rules on political ads and announced plans to crack down on candidates who claim premature victory.

Facebook hasn’t taken kindly to the unofficial board’s public attacks. Instead, its leaders brag about the company’s official and totally separate Facebook Oversight Board, a sort of court of appeals for Facebook users who think their posts have been unfairly deleted for running afoul of the service’s rules. “Those on the fake board already have large mouthpieces to criticize Facebook – the real board will do the actual work,” Andy Stone, a Facebook spokesman, tweeted last month.

The official board, created at a glacial pace over the past two years, announced last week that it would begin hearing appeals immediately. In theory, the board could soon give Facebook recommendations about how to better control harmful content. However, Facebook ultimately gets to decide whether to implement any recommendations.

Critics, including Cadwalladr, a Brit whose full-time job is investigative reporter, argue that Facebook’s crackdowns are usually too little, too late. Often, she said, they come only “after the damage has already been done.”

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This week, Fortune’s Brainstorm podcast explores the impact of big tech platforms on democracy and the economy. According to our guests, Google and other major platform companies may be hurting democracy and stifling the economy. Michal Lev-Ram and Brian O’Keefe speak with Gabriel Weinberg, the CEO of search engine DuckDuckGo; Maurice Stucke, law professor at the University of Tennessee and co-author of Competition Overdose; and Fortune senior writer, Aaron Pressman.

Listen to the episode here.

Danielle Abril

@DanielleDigest

danielle.abril@fortune.com

NEWSWORTHY

To regulate or not to regulate? The CEOs of Google, Facebook, and Twitter spent three hours answering senators’ questions at a hearing about Section 230, the law that protects Internet companies from being held liable for what their users post. And while many lawmakers zeroed in on their issues with Facebook and Twitter, including misinformation and the suppression of conservative voices, potential changes to the law would also affect a host of relatively smaller companies like Reddit.

The conspiracy continues. Facebook, Twitter, and YouTube in recent months have cracked down on QAnon, the far-right conspiracy theory. But the content continues to thrive on services that moderate less, like messaging app Telegram and social media network Parler. Meanwhile, QAnon-related products are making their way to customers via Amazon. And despite Twitter's latest efforts, the social network is still struggling to remove all of the accounts touting QAnon. 

Big bucks on the ballot. According to The Wall Street Journal, Uber, Lyft, DoorDash and other gig-economy companies have spent almost $200 million rallying support for Prop 22, a California ballot measure that, if passed, would allow the companies to keep their workers classified as contractors. As one of the most heavily financed California ballot initiatives ever, Prop 22 could have big repercussions on the companies’ business models if it fails. It also could set a precedent for other states that think gig workers should be classified as employees.

More chip mergers. Amid a wave of semiconductor company deals, Marvell Technology Group is buying Inphi for $10 billion in a cash and stock deal to create a bigger player in the market for data center networking and storage chip sets. 

Google’s antitrust woes. The Italian antitrust authority has joined a growing list of regulators across the world concerned about whether Google has violated antitrust laws. The authority is investigating whether Google used data collected from its various services to grow its advertising business and gain an unfair advantage over rivals. The investigation follows a lawsuit filed by the U.S. Department of Justice against Google earlier this month and an antitrust fine from the European Commission last year.

FOOD FOR THOUGHT

Political campaigns and special interest groups have increasingly turned to text messaging to reach potential voters and raise funds. The MIT Tech Review reports that by next week these groups will have sent nearly 3 billion text messages to people across the nation. But the article, which cites research from the Center for Media Engagement at the University of Texas at Austin, gives us a little context to this new form of outreach.

“Though it's easy to assume the texts are annoying and fairly useless, new research … paints a much darker and meaningful picture of the trend. The nature of peer-to-peer (P2P) messages make them ‘poised to bring political messaging to even higher levels of intimacy and efficacy, and, disturbingly, render them factually impossible to audit by outsiders,’ the study claims.”

IN CASE YOU MISSED IT

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The best smartwatches of 2020 By Aaron Pressman

Uber’s former CTO is mapping out growth and delivery routes in his new gig  By Lucinda Shen

Coinbase launches crypto debit card in U.S. with 1% Bitcoin reward By Jeff John Roberts

This startup is using robots and A.I. to design new drugs By Jeremy Kahn

Who is Ryan Smith, new owner of the Utah Jazz? By David Z. Morris

Domino effect: Google antitrust case could spell trouble for other tech giants By Brett Haensel

BEFORE YOU GO

A recent New York Times article explored how the San Francisco Symphony has begun creating performances for a virtual environment. It recently commissioned a piece aimed at giving people the musical experience remotely.

Let’s be clear, it won’t be the same as watching  in person. Esa-Pekka Salonen, the symphony's music director, even refrained from using the word “symphony” to describe the recorded performance. But the innovation could help arts groups reach their audiences—and expand them—at a time when everyone’s staying home.

It reminded me of a recent virtual dance festival I attended, complete with live-streamed classes and recorded performances. The festival felt vastly different than the live event. But amid the monotony that is the pandemic life, it was a welcome bit of joy.

So innovate on, artists! We need you more than ever.