Rusbridger tells EJN panel: Facebook needs to be cut some slack on news and regulation

The Facebook Oversight Board member defended the company’s approach during a forthright debate with the journalist Carole Cadwalladr and Jillian York, organised by the Ethical Journalism network

By Matt Walsh, EJN UK Committee member and Head of the School of Journalism, Media and Culture at Cardiff University

“I’m probably prepared to cut Facebook and the other companies more slack because I think that there are valuable things that they’re doing. I don’t see them as evil incarnate”.

That was the view of one of the members of the Facebook Oversight Board, Alan Rusbridger, during an Ethical Journalism Network debate on social media, journalism and regulation.

The former Guardian newspaper Editor-in-Chief was responding to the investigative journalist Carole Cadwalladr, who accused Facebook of being a bad actor who is exploiting the good intentions of people who are sat on the board.

“Facebook has tried everything to avoid Parliamentary accountability,” she warned, “That slipperiness, that evasiveness and refusal to answer to lawmakers puts it into a special case. It’s not acting in good faith.”

The Facebook Oversight board was set-up to review controversial decisions made by the company about content on its platform. To date, it has published reviews of seven cases.

The debate, which took place on Zoom, was chaired by the Deputy Director of the Reuters Institute for the Study of Journalism, Meera Selva.

Also on the panel was Jillian York, author of Silicon Values: The Future of Free Speech Under Surveillance Capitalism and Director for International Freedom of Expression at the Electronic Frontier Foundation.

York warned that many of the solutions to digital regulation are overly focussed on the United States and Europe.

“Westerners are making up rules for the rest of world and doing so quite badly,” she said, “A lot of these tendencies are nationalistic and will have negative impacts on people in other countries”.

Reacting to news that Facebook had stopped users in Australia from sharing links to news sites, Carole Cadwalladr was damning in her assessment.

“It’s mob behaviour,” she said, “They’ve stopped carrying evidence-based journalism to an entire country during a global pandemic that is marked by toxic mis and disinformation.”

Cadwalladr also accused Rusbridger of being silenced on the issue.

Rusbridger denied the accusation and warned that there are huge problems of trust for traditional news publishers.

He said of the oversight board’s work: “Somebody has to come in and work out how to protect freedom of information globally, to the highest possible standards, and to try and enforce the highest standards of human rights. And I think that’s an honourable thing to be trying to do”.

York said that while she welcomed some of the early decisions of the board, “There’s isn’t really case law around these issues. The Oversight Board has made some really good decisions. But those decisions are not going to trickle down”.

Responding to claims that self-regulation of social media is ineffective Rusbridger said, “I’m not sure the Facebook board will look like self-regulation in five years’ time, because it will have completely de-anchored itself from Facebook. It will have more of a feeling of independent regulation rather than self-regulation. It may not work, but I think you just have to give it time”.

This was the fifth monthly debate in a series organised by the Ethical Journalism Network.

The EJN is a UK-based charity that supports journalists around the world striving to uphold ethical principles, in order to build public trust in good journalism.