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The Art of Selective Transparency

9 September 2020 02:33 am - 0     - {{hitsCtrl.values.hits}}


  • Facebook has always remained secretive about the numbers employed to moderate content
  • Its even more ironic, when all these organisations now are seeking for a institutionalisation (whatever that means) of the agreement

This indeed is an art. An art perfected for public consumption, fibbing and managing the financial bottom-line.   
A lot has been written about social media and last month’s elections. Last week, a lot of praise was freely uncritically dispensed on some of those, who worked on moderating election related fakes and misinformation campaigns. Ironically, there was so much praise going around it was hard to figure out why we had been talking so much and so long about this.   
The occasion was Hashtag Generation’s unveiling of its report on election related content moderation. Representatives from Hashtag Generation, Election Commissioner Mahinda Deshapriya, Facebook country contact points and representatives from other organisations that worked on moderating and reporting on misinformation, spoke at the event. Each praised the other more often than not. They seem to be quite satisfied with a job well done.   

Now the problem with Facebook is that it is not a fan of transparency. Say on the thorny issue of content moderators. Facebook has always remained secretive about the numbers employed to moderate content, especially numbers on languages like Sinhala.   
When social media networks and their role in the racial riots in March 2018 came into focus, the crux was on content in Sinhala and whether Facebook was resourced adequately to meet the challenges.   
Since the riots, Facebook has upped its engagements in Sri Lanka and kudos to that. It now has country contact points and on occasion, like at the Hashtag Generation event, they even speak on record, foregoing the company’s erstwhile insistence of off-the-record engagements.   

But just as it is vital for Facebook to keep these numbers secret, it is important for the users of Facebook and the general public to know them.   
This is where the Art of Selective Transparency comes in handy. Facebook representatives at the event talked of how they had increased their capacity and focus on Sri Lanka, how it has engaged in training and awareness building, an overall picture of proactive engagement. Kudos yet again.   
But where are the details? There was none. Without details, it is Facebook’s word on merit.   
Oddly enough, or maybe not, no one in the audience questioned. Including the usually loud pontificators of the public’s supreme right to know.   

I posed the question on how many content moderators Facebook was employing to deal on Sinhala content. The second such occasion I have done so during public discussions in the last three months. I knew the answer. But I wanted it on public record anyway.   
 Facebook Public Policy Manager for Sri Lanka Senura Abeywardena waxed eloquent for a bit and then said, “we don’t talk about numbers, that is a company policy.” And that was it.  

It is not hard to see why Facebook gets away with such tomfoolery. The Hashtag Generation event gave a glimpse into the up-until-now publicly undetailed mechanism used by local content moderation organisations and how the content was passed on to Facebook. It is an elaborate setup, working for the betterment of public safety. All good, but no one thought is important to be transparent. Maybe it is not so important that millions of Facebook users in Sri Lanka knows how and who is involved in the moderation process.   
It looks, seems and feels like everyone from the Election Commission through to the organisations working on content moderation have been happy to work with Facebook based on the latter’s rule book, not the one on public disclosure.   

Its even more ironic, when all these organisations now are seeking for a institutionalisation (whatever that means) of the agreement between Facebook and the Election Commission. They were all happy to work all this time unquestioning that the agreement between Facebook and the Election Commission was limited to a verbal understanding without any rules of references. And suddenly there is a change of heart.   
The absence of any formal agreement became contentious when two journalists brought it to public light just before the election. Before that we did not hear any contestations.   
Let the silence reign, shall we?   

The writer is a Post-grad Researcher at CQUniversity, Melbourne focusing on online journalism and trauma Twitter - @amanthap

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