Facebook’s Oversight Board Didn’t Solve the Trump Problem | Analysis

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The Board, which was supposed to provide clarity on Facebook’s censorship decisions, provided confusion instead

Photo: Getty/Facebook

Former President Donald Trump’s Facebook future was supposed to be determined on Wednesday morning; instead, the can got kicked down the road in a move that calls into question why Facebook’s “Oversight Board” even exists.

At 6:15 a.m. PT on Wednesday, the Oversight Board — an independent 20-person team that, according to Facebook, consists of global “experts” on topics like journalism, international politics and free expression — determined the company was “justified” in kicking Trump off its platform in January but declined to weigh in on whether (and when) he might be able to rejoin.

Back on Jan. 7, just one day after Trump supporters stormed the U.S. Capitol, Facebook hit the then-president with an “indefinite” suspension on its platfforms. On Wednesday, Facebook’s Oversight Board said two of Trump’s Facebook comments at the time — “We love you. You’re very special” and “remember this day forever” — clearly broke the company’s rules against praising or supporting “people engaged in violence.” Those comments alone gave Facebook the green light to take action against his account, the Board said.

But on the most important question here — whether or not Trump can return to the platform — the Board flaked out.

Facebook’s indefinite suspension, according to the Board, was “not appropriate” based on the company’s previous decisions. The company, the Board said, needs to either put a time-limit on Trump’s suspension or just ban him altogether from the platform; the Board said Facebook now has up to six months to make a final call on Trump.

If this looks like a game of virtual hot potato, that’s because it is.

donald trump
(Photo by Joe Raedle/Getty Images)

Facebook spent $130 million to get its Oversight Board off the ground precisely for moments like this. For years, the company and CEO Mark Zuckerberg have been criticized for their moderation decisions; some have argued the company isn’t doing enough to police its 1.84 billion daily users, while others have said Facebook has been far too eager to block and remove certain content.

Either way, the Oversight Board was supposed to take the heat off Facebook and Zuckerberg by offering the official verdict on the company’s biggest moderation decisions — while keeping the executives’ hands clean. (Keep in mind, Zuckerberg has said the Board’s decisions cannot be overruled — even by Zuckerberg himself.)

Now, after Trump’s case was handed off to the Board…. it’s being handed back to Facebook. The social network, rather than the Board, will get to decide if Trump is permanently banned or not. So what’s the point of having the Board in the first place?

It’s worth asking, whether you felt Trump should be booted from Facebook or not. There are strong arguments to made on both sides. You can argue Facebook is a private corporation and should be able to moderate its platform however it sees fit. And you can also argue, as activist journalist Glenn Greenwald suggested on Twitter, that Facebook is a communications monopoly that should be regulated similar to phone companies; in that scenario, Facebook would have a much tougher time kicking people off its service.

Wherever you fall on this one, though, it doesn’t change the fact that the Oversight Board was created to make tough decisions, and on its first real test, it didn’t provide a clear answer.

So here’s where the situation currently stands: Trump, for the time being, will remain off Facebook. (On Tuesday, he launched a new “online platform” (aka a blog), so that’s where you can find his online musings currently.) Facebook will now take up to half a year to determine whether Trump’s exile is permanent or not. And in the meantime, we’re left to ponder why Facebook’s Oversight Board is needed, if all punishment decisions ultimately come back to Mark Zuckerberg anyway.


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