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Setting Communication Rules for 2.7 Billion People: How Facebook Develops its Community Standards

Setting Communication Rules for 2.7 Billion People: How Facebook Develops its Community Standards

Hamburg, 27 January 2020. For the first time, Facebook has given scientists direct access to its internal decision-making bodies. Researchers from the Hamburg-based Leibniz Institute for Media Research | Hans-Bredow-Institut (HBI) have investigated how Facebook develops communication rules for its platform. The results of this pilot study have now been published.

These rules regulate what can be said on Facebook and what must be taken down thereby influencing the ways in which 2.7 billion users interact with one another and, to some degree, perceive the world: Facebook's community standards are an example of the profound influence that private rules can have on public communication.

In a pilot study, researchers from the Leibniz Institute for Media Research have investigated how Facebook develops its rules and which stakeholders are involved in this process. Matthias C. Kettemann, head of research of the Institute’s research program on online rule-making and a senior researcher at HBI, spent a week studying the practices of Facebook’s  Product Policy team which is responsible for developing community standards at the platform’s California headquarters. In addition, the researchers conducted extensive interviews with Facebook employees to develop a clear picture of how new speech-related norms are designed and how Facebook tries to increase their impact and legitimacy by engaging multiple stakeholders, from NGOs to academics.

"We know a lot about the emergence of laws, but very little about the development of communication platforms’ internal rules, the rules under which Facebook deletes content and suspends users,” says Dr. Kettemann.  "For a long time this was a black box," says Prof. Dr. Wolfgang Schulz, Director of HBI, "into which we are now able to shed some light”.

Key Outcomes

One of the findings of the pilot project is that rule-setting processes at Facebook, on the problem of hate speech, for example, are initiated independently by employees  or in response to user comments or media criticism. The main part of the norm-making process is essentially independent of national and international law, but, as the researchers were able to show, Facebook attempts to recreate the legitimacy-producing effect of clear procedures, broad consultation, and stakeholder engagement. The same is true for national law-making: the more open and engaging the process of passing a law is, the greater its legitimacy.

The development of standards at Facebook has become a complex, multi-stage process with clear roles and timelines. "The mechanisms for balancing interests are similar to those in a legislative process," says Prof. Dr. Schulz. "External stakeholders have a much more important function than we suspected". For example, the Facebook team responsible for stakeholder engagement regularly consults a large network of civil society actors who are asked for their input on new moderation rules.

"The results show," says Prof. Dr. Schulz, "how a central social media company designs its communication space. Facebook has constructed an autonomous and private normative order for public communication, which - apart from some anchoring in US law due to Facebook's origin as a US company - is largely conceived without reference to state law or international human rights standards". Of course, if the company operates in Germany, it is also bound by German (and European) law, such as the Network Enforcement Act. At the same time, it builds up an increasingly differentiated, separate and independent set of standards that defines what can be said on the platform.

This is characteristic of online communication, adds Dr. Kettemann: "This takes place mainly in private spaces. For too long, society has regarded the private norms of Facebook like those of a local supermarket and has not questioned the platform's regulatory prerogatives.”

The researchers come to the important conclusion that Facebook's rules are part of Facebook’s product. After all, Prof. Dr. Schulz adds, “it is the Product Policy Team that is entrusted with rule development”. This goes to show, says Dr. Kettemann “that Facebook's "product" is also the socio-communicative space it makes available to the public, including its communicative infrastructure and community standards.”

Both media law experts emphasize: "Given the impact that private regulatory approaches have on the spheres of communicative freedom of individuals and the social cohesion of society, we need to better understand how these normative processes function. Our research lays the foundations to develop this understanding".


The pilot study is a first step toward researching the development of standards at Facebook. In 2020, an "Oversight Board" will begin its work, a global body of experts on freedom of expression, to which difficult issues of content deletion or non-deletion can be submitted as a quasi-judicial body, and will also be able to provide Facebook with recommendations on the rules for content moderation. The analysis of the Oversight Board and its impact on Facebook's private communication order will be the next task for the research team from Hamburg.


The Leibniz Institute for Media Research | Hans-Bredow-Institut (HBI) self-financed the study. No money was sought or received from Facebook. Facebook had the right to view the study before publication in order to avoid the inadvertent publication of protected information (especially regarding the privacy of users).  No changes to the text were requested by Facebook.


Prof. Dr. Wolfgang Schulz is Director of the Leibniz Institute for Media Research | Hans-Bredow-Institut and Director of the Alexander von Humboldt Institute for Internet and Society in Berlin. He is Professor of Public Law at the University of Hamburg and holds the UNESCO Chair for Freedom of Information and Media. He also acts as an advisor for Internet policy for the German government and multi-stakeholder bodies such as the Internet & Jurisdiction Policy Network.

PD Dr. Matthias C. Kettemann, LL.M. (Harvard) is head of the research program "Regulatory Structures and Rule Formation in Digital Communication Spaces" at HBI and project head for International Internet Law at the Humboldt Institute for Internet and Society in Berlin. Germany’s first Privatdozent for Internet Law, he is currently Visiting Hengstberger Professor the Foundation and Future of the Rule of Law at the University of Heidelberg.

Both have extensive research experience with regard to intermediaries. Wolfgang Schulz was chairman and Matthias C. Kettemann rapporteur of the Council of Europe's Committee of Experts on Internet Intermediaries. Both were consulted as experts in the German Bundestag on issues related to the regulation of intermediaries and the Network Enforcement Act. 

In this pilot study they were supported by an interdisciplinary team of researchers at HBI (from media sociology, anthropology and ethnology).

The Leibniz Institute for Media Research | Hans-Bredow-Institut (HBI) has a data protection officer who ensures that data protection standards are observed in all research projects.

Research results are published as Open Access in the spirit of the Leibniz Association’s aim to promote free social access to knowledge.


Dr. Matthias C. Kettemann, LL.M. (Harvard)
Leibniz Institute for Media Research | Hans-Bredow-Institut (HBI)
Rothenbaumchaussee 36, 20148 Hamburg, Germany
E-Mail: m.kettemann@leibniz-hbi.de

Information about the study

The study is available for free download (pdf).

Information on the Leibniz Institute for Media Research | Hans-Bredow-Institut (HBI)

A global leader in cutting-edge empirical and regulatory research on media, the Leibniz Institute for Media Research | Hans-Bredow-Institut closely tracks the realities, uses and transformations of media, mediated communication, and the structural changes of public communicative spheres. With its cross-media, interdisciplinary and independent research, it has emerged as Germany’s most important media research institution, combining foundational and transfer-oriented research and generating data, analysis, and policy options for all societal stakeholders. In 2019, the Institute was admitted to the renowned Leibniz Association of research institutions.
Photo by Glen Carrie on Unsplash



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