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Facebook Oversight Board overturns four decisions on content moderation

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Facebook's Oversight Board issued its first rulings on Thursday, overturning four out of five decisions by the social network to take down questionable content.

The social media giant set up the oversight panel to rule on thorny issues about content on its platforms, in response to criticism about its inability to respond swiftly and effectively to misinformation, hate speech and nefarious influence campaigns.

The board makes binding rulings, which cannot be overturned by CEO Mark Zuckerberg. But the panel does not set policies or decide if Facebook's enforcement of regulations is effective.

Facebook regularly takes down thousands of posts and accounts, and about 150,000 of those cases have appealed to the oversight board since it launched in November. The board is prioritising for review select cases that have the potential to affect lots of users around the world.

In its initial batch of rulings, the board ordered Facebook to restore posts by users that the company said broke standards on adult nudity, hate speech, or dangerous individuals.

Helle Thorning-Schmidt, former Prime Minister of Denmark and a member of the Oversight Board panel, told Euronews that Facebook needs to be "much clearer" to its users.

"People need to know the reasons why Facebook has taken certain actions and what policy standard they have overstepped".

"Too many of Facebook's decisions to moderate content is done by machines and not by humans".

One case involved a Brazilian user's Instagram post about breast cancer being automatically removed because it included images of female nipples.

The image was pink, in line with “Pink October” - an international campaign to raise awareness of this disease.

The board found that the post was allowed under a policy exception for “breast cancer awareness” and that Facebook’s automated moderation in this case raises important human rights concerns.

A Myanmar user's Burmese-language Facebook post about Muslims that included two widely shared photos of a dead Syrian toddler was deemed offensive, but did not rise to the level of hate speech, the board ruled.

A post with a quote falsely attributed to Joseph Goebbels - the Nazi propaganda minister - was originally removed by Facebook for violating its Community Standards. It was overturned by the board after the user told them the intent was to compare the sentiment in the quote to Donald Trump's presidency.

A French post that claimed a cure for COVID-19 existed, and criticised the lack of COVID-19 health strategy in France, was taken down for breaching standards on misinformation. That was also overturned. The board claimed it didn't pose imminent harm.

The board agreed only with Facebook's decision to take down a post with a slur used to describe Azerbaijanis, stemming from last year's conflict between Armenia and Azerbaijan over the territory of Nagorno-Karabakh.

Still to come is the panel's most high profile case - the decision to indefinitely suspend former US President Donald Trump's Facebook account.

Facebook took action on his official account on January 7, stating that Trump incited his supporters to violence on Capitol Hill in Washington DC. The account was initially blocked until a peaceful transition of power was complete, meaning a decision should be made soon.

It will be the biggest test for the panel, which faces criticism that Facebook set it up to stave off regulation or even an eventual breakup of the company as it faces anti-trust scrutiny.

Co-chair Michael McConnell said the panel had started working on the Trump case but that it was only in the early stages.

"All this has happened extremely recently so they're at the very beginning of their work," he told an online press briefing.

The oversight board will start accepting public comments on the Trump case on Friday.

"It is important that Facebook realises it is not sustainable, and that we, as an independent board, can provide transparency and consideration on their decisions," Thorning-Schmidt told Euronews.

"We know our own decisions may also be controversial and people will have their own different opinions, but the Oversight Board is designed to be open to public comments and input."