Facebook's Oversight Board demands more transparency

The Facebook app as seen on a smartphone in somebody's pocket

Facebook's Oversight Board has released its first Transparency Report, slamming the social media giant for not providing enough information on a controversial system called cross-check.

The report, released today, covers Q4 2020 and the first half of 2021. In it, the board complains that Facebook had not been transparent enough about the cross-check system, originally designed as a quality-control measure for actions taken on high-profile accounts. A September report from the Wall Street Journal found the company used the system to exempt high-profile users from its rules.

Practices included using low levels of review on some accounts, effectively whitelisting them.

"Facebook failed to explain that some percentage of this content is not reviewed and remains on the platform despite its initial assessment as violating Facebook policies. This is a good example of how less-than-forthcoming answers from Facebook deprived the Board of critical information and context," the report said.

Whitelisted accounts could spread misinformation and, in one case, nude photos of a privileged account holder’s alleged rape victim, which millions of fans saw before they were taken down.

The board could not properly review the cross-check system due to a lack of information from Facebook, it complained.

"In the Board’s view, the team within Facebook tasked with providing information has not been fully forthcoming on cross-check," the report said. "On some occasions, Facebook failed to provide relevant information to the Board, while in other instances, the information it did provide was incomplete."

Facebook admitted its description of the cross-check system to the board was misleading. The report continued, adding Facebook failed to properly explain how it selected accounts to include in the initiative. The social media company told the board that the system only applied to "a small number of decisions," but the Wall Street Journal found it applied to almost six million accounts.

Former-President Donald Trump's Facebook account was included in cross-check, but the company failed to mention this to the board when it referred a complaint about that account's suspension to the board. The system only came up incidentally, when Facebook employees responded to a question from the board about that case.

The board announced it will review the cross-check system and make recommendations on how it can be changed, at Facebook's request. The social media company will provide more documents relating to the system, it added.

The board received over a half million user appeals in the review period, proceeding with just 17 of them. It decided 11 of those cases by the end of June, overturning Facebook's decision eight times.

Danny Bradbury

Danny Bradbury has been a print journalist specialising in technology since 1989 and a freelance writer since 1994. He has written for national publications on both sides of the Atlantic and has won awards for his investigative cybersecurity journalism work and his arts and culture writing. 

Danny writes about many different technology issues for audiences ranging from consumers through to software developers and CIOs. He also ghostwrites articles for many C-suite business executives in the technology sector and has worked as a presenter for multiple webinars and podcasts.