Facebook steps up efforts to moderate content and combat fake news

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Facebook, the world’s largest social network, has a long list of challenges from election meddling and fake news to allegations of data misuse and censorship. 

Now the tech firm is trying to show its nearly 2.3 billion users and lawmakers it’s doing more to tackle these problems. 

On Monday, Facebook revealed more details about an independent board it’s forming that would have the power to reverse the company’s decisions about what content it leaves up or pulls down. The tech firm is trying to get feedback about how this board will work, including what cases it will hear and how it will handle cultural differences. 

Facebook also outlined the ways it’s doing more to combat misinformation and election meddling ahead of the European Parliament election in May. That included rolling out a tool to track political ads globally and setting up “regional operations centers” in Facebook’s Dublin and Singapore offices to thwart fake news, hate speech and voter suppression before elections. 

These efforts come as the Facebook attempts to rebuild user trust and prove to regulators it’s doing enough to safeguard the data and privacy of its users. The company has dealt with a series of scandals after revelations surfaced that UK political consultancy Cambridge Analytica harvested the data of up to 87 million users without their permission. Facing calls for more regulation, Facebook is also under pressure to show that their efforts to combat fake news and election meddling are actually working. 

“On elections, I’m in no doubt that we have a lot of work to do to demonstrate that Facebook tools can provide a positive contribution to the quality of our democracy,” said Nick Clegg, Facebook’s VP of Global Affairs and Communications, in his first public speech at an event in Brussels. “But much of the skepticism that Facebook faces as a company and as an industry is about something more fundamental: the role of personal data in the internet economy.”

Facebook said it’s releasing a political ads database in Europe, India, Ukraine and Israel ahead of their elections before expanding the tool worldwide before the end of June. Last year, Facebook started requiring US advertisers who posted ads about politics or “issues of national importance” to verify their identity and location and the company is expanding this rule to other countries. The ads must include a “Paid for by” disclaimer, and they’re stored in a public database for up to 7 years.

The launch of the political ads database in the US, though, didn’t go off without a hitch. Some users raised concerns their ads were being mischaracterized as political while news outlets such as Vice and Business Insider found loopholes in the system that allowed them to get approval for fake ads paid for the Islamic State and all 100 US senators.

Meanwhile, with more than 2.3 billion users worldwide, Facebook has been under fire in the past for what content it decides to pull down or keep up. It’s removed and then restored an iconic Vietnam War photo of a naked 9-year-old girl fleeing after a napalm attack and denied allegations that it’s suppressing conservative speech.

“I think it’s really important that Facebook does not becoming an arbiter of what is politically accepted speech beyond the obvious cases of hate speech and illegal speech,” Clegg said on Monday.

The company is turning to outside experts in privacy, journalism, civil rights and other topics to help weigh in on these contentious decisions. This new board will not only review what content Facebook leaves up or pulls down but will have the power to reverse a decision. 

Facebook still has a lot of questions to answer about how an oversight for content decisions will work and what cases it hears. 

Some of these questions include “How can the board ensure cultural sensitivity while also issuing decisions that will affect 2.3 billion people around the globe?” and “How can the first members of the board be chosen in a way that is transparent and reasonable?”

The tech firm is looking at creating a board of up to 40 global experts who will serve for three years, but is also considering whether they should expand or reduce the size and length of the terms. Facebook users who disagree with the company’s decision or the tech firm itself might refer a case to the new board, but the details haven’t been finalized.

The company is hosting workshops in Singapore, Delhi, Nairobi, Berlin, New York, Mexico City and other cities over the next six months to help get these questions answered.

“As we build out the board,” Clegg wrote in a blog post. “we want to make sure it is able to render independent judgment, is transparent and respects privacy.”

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