Facebook is regularly in the news as a force disrupting democratic politics across the globe but what if democracy could be the model to save Facebook?
The social network connecting 2.2 billion people has had a rocky time of late. From the alleged malevolent interference by foreign actors in the last US Presidential election via the Cambridge Analytica scandal to more recent data and document leaks, the company is usually making headline news for all the wrong reasons.
One of the most persistent problems Mark Zuckerberg’s company has had to deal with is hate speech. Indeed, some of the content distributed on Facebook bitterly divides societies and drives people apart rather than connecting them – the primary purpose of the social network (“making the world more open and connected” its founder says). Taking decisions about where to draw the line between controversial but legitimate views and inciting hatred is, however, not a straightforward task and the company has struggled to come to grips with rules and processes capable of handling the issue. One recent idea of Zuckerberg, however, could show the way to an interesting new model of corporate governance.
He wants to establish an independent appeals body, dubbed in the media a “Facebook Supreme Court”, for three major reasons. First, an external appeals body would take decisions away from Facebook itself. Second, it would create accountability and oversight. And, third, an independent body would ensure that decisions are not taken for commercial reasons but, rather, in the best interest of the Facebook community.
Court of appeal
The key point here is that Zuckerberg is in effect setting up an independent jurisdiction that is usually only found in democratic political systems. And such a move makes perfect sense for a company that is often described as akin to a global nation or as the modern equivalent of the public square of old. But is establishing an independent “court of appeal” enough for a company that has more users than any individual country’s citizens? Or could the slogan “give people the power”, which is core to Facebook’s mission, also mean that mimicking more democratic institutions in the corporate governance model of a company of Facebook’s unique size and scope is the way forward?
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The problem with its community standards is not just enforcement but often the content of different policies themselves. Even if you consult broadly on what should be acceptable and what not, as Facebook does, the final decision is still made by the company itself. If Facebook not only set up a judicial institution but also crafted a digital legislative process empowering its users, the policies themselves would have a different source of legitimacy and would truly “give people the power”.
Creating such a process is of course not straightforward as there are significant cultural differences amongst Facebook users. But none of the alternative options to address the company’s issues are easy either. Facebook has already announced that it is planning to allow for a degree of personal customisation in what content is shown to users but if personal customisation could be married with broader legitimacy of the underlying general policies the company might be on the right track.
It is no coincidence that the long-standing division of powers into executive, legislative and judicial branches has served democratic nations well. Maybe adopting this proven model for the governance of a corporation that has the hallmarks of a digital nation more than any other company on the planet is the way forward. Setting more legitimate policies by including users directly in the decision-making process and policing these policies proactively with better AI content filters and reactively by human intervention would be an interesting experiment. Especially if an appeals mechanism akin to an independent court were added on top.
At the very least it is worth exploring these new concepts of governance. The current model has clearly failed and it is hard to see how future failures can be avoided without institutional governance innovation. As Zuckerberg himself stated in his note on content governance and enforcement, these are issues that cannot be fixed for all time but merely improved upon. It is, however, much better to try to improve with the users than for the users.
Henning Meyer is Editor-in-Chief of Social Europe and a Research Associate of the Public Policy Group at the London School of Economics and Political Science. He is also Director of the consultancy New Global Strategy Ltd. and frequently writes opinion editorials for international newspapers such as The Guardian, DIE ZEIT, The New York Times and El Pais.