“It is crucial that we continue to ask questions on cross-check (xcheck), and publish the answers for people to see. Transparency is essential for social media platforms,” the Oversight Board said in a blog post where it announced that it has reached out to Facebook to request they provide further clarity on exceptions made for high-profile users.
What is Facebook’s cross-check program?
On September 13, Wall Street Journal published an exposé revealing that high-profile users on Facebook are exempt from some or all of the social media giant’s rules as part of a company programme known as cross-check or Xcheck. The program was initially intended as a quality control measure for action taken against high-profile accounts, but it ended up granting immunity to public figures from action, including in cases where their posts amounted to harassment or incited violence, the report stated.
Xcheck has allowed posts that violated its rules to be viewed at least 16.4 billion times, WSJ revealed.
In the past, Facebook has routinely claimed that all users on its platforms are held to the same standards. But the WSJ report shows that when it comes to enforcing Facebook’s guidelines, the company maintains explicit segregation between ordinary users and VIPs.
“These disclosures have drawn renewed attention to the seemingly inconsistent way that the company makes decisions, and why greater transparency and independent oversight of Facebook matter so much for users.” – Oversight Board
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Did Facebook mislead its own Oversight Board about Xcheck?
In May this year, Facebook’s Oversight Board upheld the company’s decision to suspend Donald Trump’s account. The board made 19 recommendations for future action in its verdict, among of which was to share the criteria for adding pages and accounts to cross-check as well as to report on relative error rates of determinations made through cross-check, compared with its ordinary enforcement procedures.
A month after these recommendations, Facebook told the Oversight Board that Xcheck was used for a small number of decisions, but did not elaborate criteria for adding pages and accounts to the system, and declined to provide reporting on error rates. “It’s not feasible to track this information,” Facebook wrote in its responses.
“In our decision concerning former US President Donald Trump’s accounts, we warned that a lack of clear public information on cross-check and Facebook’s ‘newsworthiness exception’ could contribute to perceptions that Facebook is unduly influenced by political and commercial considerations.” – Oversight Board
What is the Oversight Board looking to find out?
“In light of recent developments, we are looking into the degree to which Facebook has been fully forthcoming in its responses in relation to cross-check, including the practice of whitelisting,” the board said.
The Oversight Board said that it will report the briefing it receives from Facebook in the first release of quarterly transparency reports which it will publish in October. “On top of providing new information on the types of appeals the Board is receiving, these reports will provide an analysis of the Board’s decisions related to cross-check and Facebook’s responses on this topic,” the board added.
“The choices made by companies like Facebook have real-world consequences for the freedom of expression and human rights of billions of people across the world. By having clear rules and enforcing them consistently, platforms can give users the confidence that they’ll be treated fairly. Ultimately, that benefits everyone.” – Oversight Board
How many users are part of Xcheck and under what criteria?
At least 5.8 million users were part of Xcheck in 2020, documents accessed by WSJ revealed. The 2019 internal review found that differential treatment under Xcheck was both widespread and “not publicly defensible”.
Most Facebook employees were allowed to add people to Xcheck, and 45 teams from across the world had been involved in whitelisting practices. An internal guide to Xcheck eligibility cited that users who were “newsworthy,” “influential or popular” or “PR risky,” could be added. Users were not notified that they had been added to the whitelist.
While there were rough guidelines on who belonged in Xcheck, Facebook had no clear-cut rules or strict criteria for whitelisting. The Xcheck whitelist is “scattered throughout the company, without clear governance or ownership,” according to Facebook’s ‘Get Well Plan’ from 2020 accessed by WSJ.
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