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Facebook's 'Oversight Board' overturns 4 cases in first rulings

"For all board members, you start with the supremacy of free speech," Alan Rusbridger, a board member and former editor-in-chief of The Guardian, said.
Facebook's corporate headquarters in Menlo Park, Calif.Josh Edelson / AFP via Getty Images file

Facebook's Oversight Board on Thursday issued its first round of decisions, overturning several decisions by the company to remove posts for violating policies on hate speech, violence and other issues.

The first-ever rulings, which Facebook has said it will abide by, come in the run-up to a far more consequential decision the board will make in the weeks ahead: Whether to overturn Facebook's decision to suspend former President Donald Trump's account in the wake of the Jan. 6 riots in Washington.

The board, a group of 20 journalists, politicians and judges from around the world, was formed last year and has been tasked with passing judgment on the social media giant's handling of the most difficult content issues. It claims total independence from Facebook, and Facebook has said that the decisions it makes will be binding.

Thursday's decisions offer a sign that the social media giant's newly formed "Supreme Court" intends to err on the side of free speech.

"For all board members, you start with the supremacy of free speech," Alan Rusbridger, one of the 20 board members and the former editor-in-chief of The Guardian, said in an interview before the decisions were made public. "Then you look at each case and say, what's the cause in this particular case why free speech should be curtailed?"

Monika Bickert, Facebook's vice president of content policy, said Thursday that the company “will implement these binding decisions in accordance with the bylaws and have already restored the content in three of the cases as mandated by the Oversight Board.”

The board's first rulings concerned five cases in which Facebook had removed posts for violating its policies. And in four out of the five cases reviewed, the board voted to overturn Facebook's original decisions. The board also called on Facebook to give users greater clarity over its policies and how it intends to enforce them.

Two of those rulings pertained to Facebook's policy on hate speech, one of which was overturned and the other upheld.

In the first case, Facebook had removed a post from a user in Myanmar who appeared to disparage Muslims as psychologically inferior. While the company decided that the post violated its policy, the board ruled that the terms used "were not derogatory or violent."

"While the post might be considered pejorative or offensive towards Muslims, it did not advocate hatred or intentionally incite any form of imminent harm," the board wrote.

In the second case, a user posted a term to describe Azerbaijanis that Facebook interpreted as a slur. The board similarly ruled that "the context in which the term was used makes clear it was meant to dehumanize its target," and upheld Facebook's decision.

The third case pertained to nudity: The board overturned Facebook’s decision to remove an Instagram post from a user in Brazil intended to raise awareness about breast cancer. The post included five photographs that showed women’s nipples, which the board declared permissible in light of Facebook’s own policy exception for “breast cancer awareness.”

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The fourth case pertained to violence: One user quoted Joseph Goebbels, the Nazi propagandist who is on Facebook’s list of “dangerous individuals.” Facebook policy states that quotes attributed to such individuals are an expression of support for that individual unless otherwise stated. But the board said the quote “did not support the Nazi party’s ideology or the regime’s acts of hate and violence.”

The fifth and final case pertained to misinformation: Facebook had removed a post from a user in France that falsely claimed a cure for Covid-19 existed and criticized the French government for failing to make it available. Facebook said the post could lead people to ignore health guidance or attempt to self-medicate.

The board, considering the context of the user's post, argued that the user was “opposing a governmental policy and aimed to change that policy,” and that his post would not lead people to self-medicate since the combination of those medicines was not available without a prescription.