The Role of Facebook’s Oversight Board

The Oversight Board piqued my interest several months ago. Right after Facebook banned President Trump in early January 2021, the Board received an appeal. The Board’s task is to determine if Facebook made the right decision. If Facebook was right, Trump remains banned. If Facebook was wrong, Trump starts posting again.

However, whatever the outcome, Facebook must follow the Board.

The Board’s delayed its decision, originally expected in mid-April. The Board needs more time to review material regarding the Trump decision.

What is the Oversight Board?

It’s no secret that Facebook has challenges managing content produced by its 2+ billion users. The challenge has two main components. The first part is creating rules, guidelines, and algorithms to screen content across different languages and cultures to ensure everything is “acceptable.” Or at least acceptable according to Facebook’s fluid definition of the term.

The second part is the volume. With more than 2 billion users, even missing a small percentage of questionable content has a big impact. The missed content can still result in a sizable amount of posts or images that violate Facebook’s terms of service.

Facebook’s Oversight Board was created to provide oversight on difficult, or controversial decisions, Facebook made regarding content. The Board comprises individuals from different cultures, disciplines, and countries. Its main purpose is to provide independent and transparent oversight on appeals following Facebook’s decisions.

People submit appeals to the Board following a ban from Facebook. For example, should all nipples be banned on Facebook as something pornographic? Or indecent exposure? What if the nipple is in the context of breast cancer awareness? Or in support of breastfeeding? Or simply acceptable in some cultures?

Is the Oversight Board Necessary?

The Oversight Board is a new concept. It’s only been around for a little over a year. On the one hand, Facebook does need something to help manage its large and diverse group of users. Relying on the government for this type of oversight gets tricky. Governments move slow and will likely influence the direction of Facebook based on the political affiliation of a leader at any given time.

What Facebook needs is something that can make decisions quickly, work across cultures (and languages), and remain politically neutral. Can the Oversight Board fulfill this role? It’s too early to know. We’ll have to wait until the Board’s decisions trickle down to the actions taken by Facebook and the impact on users.

Using Google Lens for Plant Identification

With spring arriving, we’ve been cleaning up the backyard. It’s provided a welcome distraction during our third lockdown. Our new home has an extensive garden. Since we moved in the winter, we don’t know what a lot of the plants are. One plant, a tree-like shrub, is everywhere. We couldn’t identify it from the dead buds attached to the branches. Then I remembered Google Lens.

Google lens is an app used to identify images. It can also identify text in other languages for translation and landmarks. When I was in library school, I recall the challenges with image indexing, i.e., coming up with words to properly identify the main subject(s) in an image. Thinking of the old adage, “a picture is worth a thousand words” helps to illustrate why this task is so difficult. However, Google lens can search for other similar images, a technology not available when I was in library school.

Feeling optimistic, I went outside and snapped a few photos. I took pictures of the bark, the whole plant, and a close up of the dead, dried-out buds, the only one that worked.

The unidentifiable plant

With the photo on my phone, I pressed the Google Lens app. Within seconds, the app scanned the photo identifying the “subjects” to search for online. Then provided me with some best guesses for a match. It was easy to change the app’s focal point if I wanted to search for something else.

The first guesses definitely weren’t right. One was for a desert plant and the other was for a seed pod.

Using Google Lens

Then I scrolled down to related results – similar images. Success! We identified the plant as hibiscus syriacus, also known as “Rose of Sharon.”

I was impressed that we were able to identify the plants when they weren’t in bloom. My previous attempts at using Google Lens had not been successful. Likely it was due to the image “subject” being too small, or out of focus.

While it did take a little bit of searching to actually find the match, having options narrowed down based on an image was helpful. Before Google Lens, I always found plant/flower identification trick. My only options were looking through books, tons of images, or using a database to make the match by describing the shape of the leaf, the color, the number of petals… all daunting for a novice.

Gaming the System: the Role of Influencers

The role of “influencer” has become a prominent part of the social media landscape. Influencers come in all shapes and sizes. Essentially, an influencer is someone who impacts another person’s decisions. This is accomplished through a variety of means and methods. Some influencers have celebrity status. Others have a large following on one, or more, social media channels such as Twitter or Facebook. Some have a wealth of knowledge or expertise about a specific topic. Mostly though, the influencer is about representing a brand and building personal relationships. Trust is key for the influencer, in addition to creating authentic (sponsored) content.

Most astonishing to me is the role of an influencer as an actual profession. Influencers make lots of money(!), to create content, build relationships, and represent brands. Ideally, the influencer should be generating business towards a specific brand or item, thereby making money for the company. However, using influencers makes sense from a business perspective. Influencers are a powerful marketing tool. They’re able to reach vast amounts of people, many of whom are likely the intended audience.

Seeing a review, or endorsement, from a person may have more weight than an advertisement. Whenever I check reviews for a new product, I usually read peer reviews. I also check some reputable product review companies, but peer reviews count too. Although, one must be mindful of the motives behind the peer review. There is a lot of fraud out there.

Gaming the System

Every time I hear about influencers, I always stop for a moment to wonder, how did we get here? How did this become a legitimate paid profession? And can I get in on the action? (Though I’m never sure what I would be good at endorsing…). Even more importantly, I always wonder about all the influencers gaming the system.

By gaming the system, I’m referring to influencers who buy “fake” followers to make their accounts look more attractive. Or people who are really savvy at creating catchy, sensational posts that go viral due to algorithms. Or by using bots to fabricate popularity and thus boost views.

So where does this leave us, as people, and consumers? Inundated by a never ending flow of content, some more authentic than others.

My advice, go for quality over quantity. Look into a couple of resources, or influencers, you like and verify them. Disregard the rest of the stuff.

Librarians: The Disinformation Antidote

One of the things I’ve always loved about the library is the validity of the resources. If I’m doing research and I find something through the library, I know it can be trusted. This doesn’t mean I agree with the findings, or that it’s the best thing out there, but it has a certain level of credibility. Libraries, and particularly librarians, are in the business of verifying the trustworthiness and quality of materials before they get added to the collection. This includes practices like developing criteria, vetting resources, and making sure items remain current and relevant as information changes.

Libraries, especially public ones, are amazing resources. I worked at a public library for about a year when I first became a librarian. My role as an “auxiliary librarian” presented me with the opportunity to work in branches all over the city. Basically I covered shifts for full-time librarians who were out. The wealth and variety of the collection, or how each branch tailored its resources to the patrons, constantly amazed me.

For example, a patron came to me once with an imitation of a signature he had found on a painting purchased at a garage sale. He wanted to know if the artist was famous. To my surprise, the library had a book of famous artist signatures exactly for this purpose. We weren’t able to match the chicken scratch he brought in, despite our efforts. But still, a book with famous artist signatures! I suppose now one could take a picture of the signature and use Google Lens to find a match. However, sometimes these things take a human eye to discern.

The Disinformation Antidote

Back to the main point, librarians are the perfect resource to combat the “infodemic.” Or any of the disinformation (and misinformation) spreading around digitally. Librarians are real information professionals. Our education includes methods for verifying and validating trustworthy resources. Many librarians are expert researchers and fact checkers.

How would this solution work? It’s not straightforward, especially considering how easily disinformation and misinformation goes viral. Facts are not always sensational, but during a pandemic, when information changes rapidly, it’s critical to get it right. One possible solution is for credible agencies to hire librarians to help with research and dissemination of accurate information. Get them posting the real stuff to drown out the noise of the infodemic.

Exhilaration

Spring is one of my favorite times of the year. I love experiencing the unstoppable force of nature each year as things start to wake up and grow. Watching leaves develop on trees is one of my favorite sights. The leaves start small, appearing as reddish-brownish specks on the tips of the branches. Each passing day the specks grow bigger, changing from a bright yellow-green to a vibrant green within weeks. It’s awesome to watch.

Although spring is arriving with its usual energy, this year feels different. I suppose it’s because last year at this time we were locked in the house. For weeks and weeks. Last March, after the pandemic (and lockdown) started, my outdoor time was limited to my balcony. Luckily I had a view of some trees. And I thoroughly enjoyed listening to the increased birdsong. But it just wasn’t the same.

This year, however, feels like a fresh start. A chance to re-experience the wonders of spring that I missed witnessing first hand last year. Or rather, that I got to observe from a distance of a 12th-floor balcony. I know we’re still in the pandemic, but hopefully some things will soon be available for us to participate in again. When they are available, it feels like doing something for the first time, even though it’s something I’ve probably done dozens (or even hundreds!) of times before. Among my faves are the exhilarating feeling of running downhill or the satisfying crunch of dead leaves beneath my sneakers.

The other day I visited a field in a nearby park. Walking briskly, feeling the sun, the wind, and the slightly muddy terrain squishing beneath my sneakers was uplifting. Normally I would’ve been concerned about large chunks of mud sticking in the treads, but this time I enjoyed the sensation. I welcomed experiencing the mucky spring ground after missing out on it last year.

Too often, we live by our routines. Doing the same thing, the same way, every time, by rote. The pandemic is a huge pain. It’s been hard on everyone, in some way or another, but there have been some positives. Maybe it’s spring, but the long “pandemic” break from things has given me fresh eyes. I had forgotten the exhilarating feeling of simple pleasures, like watching the leaves grow on trees. Small activities I am now enjoying again after missing them last year.

Bad Tech vs. Bad with Tech

Whenever something goes wrong with technology, I often blame the technology first. However, in many cases, the real issue is how the technology was set up. I’ve worked with many clients who complain about new technology. They claim not to notice improvements. And in some cases, they even insist things are worse. Often, the configuration or set up, is the real culprit.

Recently, we hired an elite-status, Google-approved tech to install a Google Nest Thermostat. This was my first experience with a smart home device. Initially, the installation seemed successful. We downloaded apps. Then set it up from our smartphones.

Hours later, the house was freezing. We thought it was because we hadn’t set the temperature high enough. We quickly realized the furnace was not connecting with the Google Nest. This, despite the Nest giving us temperature readings and estimates of how long it would take to heat up. After 3+ hours chatting with Google tech support, trouble shooting and trying different things, we discovered the main issue. Our furnace required some electrical “tweaking” to be compatible with the Nest.

We were shocked! Checking compatibility between the furnace and the thermostat should have been the first step. Additionally, after installing the thermostat, the technician never confirmed if the furnace went back on. It hadn’t. Instead, he relied completely on Google Nest to let him know if there was a problem. Basic human errors. We went out shortly after the installation so we didn’t notice right away.

After exhausting all our options, we ended up re-installing the old thermostat. Within minutes we heard the familiar, and welcome, clanking of the furnace firing up.

Strategies for Using Technology Successfully

I always recommend listing your needs before looking for a technology-based solution. People are often seduced by fancy technology without even knowing if it’s a good fit for what they need.

Another strategy is to set time aside to plan and configure technology properly. I personally find that I always need more time than I think to set things up. For example, even going through all the settings on my new phone has taken me days.

Understand that success depends on a combination of human-based effort and technology. In other words, don’t solely rely on technology. Had that silly tech covered the basics, (e.g., compatibility and the furnace turning on) we wouldn’t have spent so much time later.