Andras Sajo: “Developments in social media are decisive for democracy”

Andras Sajo, professor and founding dean of the Department of Legal Studies at CEU, is among the first 20 members of Facebook’s new Oversight Board, an independent body assembled to review the platform’s content moderation guidelines. A former Vice-President of the European Court of Human Rights, Sajo is a prominent constitutional expert and a distinguished scholar in the fields of human rights and media regulation. We spoke with Professor Sajo about the working mechanisms of Facebook’s Oversight Board, and the significance of various developments in social media.

How do you see the current state of human rights across Facebook and Instagram?

Freedom of expression and human rights are central to all of this. Previously, Facebook had made some attempts to consider such matters, but now they would like some external stewardship, so that these values can be observed in a balanced manner.

The board’s operations are funded by Facebook itself. How will the board ensure that its decision making is independent?

Facebook has pledged $130 million for three years; they cannot influence how these funds are used nor can they revoke them. The funds are completely outside their purview; the money belongs exclusively to the board, which is financially completely independent. Facebook has no authority to appoint new board members, which can only be done by current members. So far, those who have been selected are people with proven integrity, and I think that this is the most important element. I can’t imagine how Facebook could influence us, and I also can’t imagine us being subject to any external pressure.

How do you see the role and responsibility of the board in light of the current health crisis, where social media is both a lifeline for many people as well as a platform for extreme misinformation - frequently presented as countering a corrupt mainstream media bias?

I would like to be both optimistic and pessimistic in this respect. I really hope that the epidemic will be over by the time that we begin operating - of course this does not mean that we will not be confronted with similar problems in the future. The pessimistic view is that we cannot meet in person for the time being, only via various internet platforms, and that slows our work down slightly. It is especially important to understand how the system works. Our role is to review content that has been removed by Facebook: any person who feels aggrieved has the right to complain. To use a hypothetical example: a post about a miraculous cure for the virus is taken down because the content is false, at which point the user can turn to us. Personally, I would be surprised to see such a complaint, because the snake oil salesman would run the risk of being called out for what he is by an independent body.

Could you please give us an example of some of the content that might be controversial if deleted from these platforms?

This always depends upon the context. If content is removed because the laws of the country of origin are applied, then we do not have the authority to review those cases. For example, if there is a court order in a country to delete something and Facebook complies with it, then we have no authority to review that decision.

Can users complain about content that Facebook has not removed, but that they consider controversial?

Not at this early stage. Once we have established ourselves and the first stage of our work is carried out successfully, that is specifically dealing with deletion complaints, then a second stage may figure the possibility of dealing with complaints where another user objects to content.

In what instances will users be able to appeal to the board? Will they have the opportunity to contact board members directly?

If something is removed, people must use the complaint procedures that already exist on Facebook. One has to first exhaust currently available possibilities, and he or she may only send a complaint to the Oversight Board if the person is unhappy with the solution. I presume that it will be a very informal requirement, which will be free and then there will be a panel of five who will review the request. If it is of general importance or if the panel finds it a severe violation of Facebook’s rules, human rights or freedom of expression, then it will accept the request, and another panel will decide on the case. The composition of that panel will be determined on a case-by-case basis, probably according to a lottery or rotation system. Specific knowledge or experience will not be what determines who will be on the panel; the only current consideration is to have effective regional diversity, meaning that someone from the complainant’s region must be involved.

What region will you represent?

From Vladivostok to the English Channel and possibly even Great Britain. At the moment there is no member from East Central Asia or Russia.

Is there a timeframe for board members to decide?

Yes, it must be within three months of receiving the request.

How will you decide which cases to prioritize and review from the presumably thousands of cases that one can expect to be escalated to the board each year?

That is precisely what we must figure out in the coming months. There has to be a very systematic process to determine the applicable principles and considerations. An analysis of existing problems is necessary, and then we will come up with guidelines regarding which cases should be considered first or considered at all.

At a personal level, what motivated you to accept this position?

I find that these developments for social media are decisive for discourse and democracy. I have been involved in this all my life in various capacities. Secondly, it is an intellectual challenge that one cannot refuse.

When is the board scheduled to begin its work?

We are currently in the second week of our activities; we need to determine procedures and establish ourselves. I do not expect to actually start reviewing cases before the fall.

How does the work fit in with your current academic research and do you foresee any conflict?

I am currently working on how to keep societies open or make them open, so in this respect it is central to my research, and I do not see any conflict.