Facebook Chucked Its Own Rulebook to Ban Trump

The move is a reminder of social platforms’ power over online speech — and the inconsistency with which they wield it

Photo: Chip Somodevilla/Getty Images

After four years of accommodating, tolerating, and occasionally wrist-slapping Donald Trump, Facebook chose the morning after a riot breached the U.S. Capitol to suspend the outgoing president from its platform. Several smaller platforms, including Snapchat, Shopify, and Twitch, have taken similar steps, and more dominoes are likely to fall soon.

CEO Mark Zuckerberg announced in a Facebook post shortly before 11 a.m. on Thursday that both Facebook and Instagram have blocked Trump’s account. According to the post, the accounts will be blocked “indefinitely and for at least the next two weeks until the peaceful transition of power is complete.” Zuckerberg wrote:

Over the last several years, we have allowed President Trump to use our platform consistent with our own rules, at times removing content or labeling his posts when they violate our policies. We did this because we believe that the public has a right to the broadest possible access to political speech, even controversial speech. But the current context is now fundamentally different, involving use of our platform to incite violent insurrection against a democratically elected government.

We believe the risks of allowing the President to continue to use our service during this period are simply too great.

An insurrection at the Capitol certainly underscores the argument that Trump’s presence on Facebook and other major social networks constitutes a clear and present threat to American democracy. As such, booting him feels like the right call, even the obvious one. It ramps up pressure on Twitter to do the same, after Twitter initially got ahead of Facebook by temporarily suspending Trump for tweets that condoned the riots on Wednesday night.

Yet Facebook’s “indefinite” ban on Trump marks an overnight reversal of the policy on Trump and other political leaders that the social network has spent the past four years honing, justifying, and defending. The unprecedented move, which lacks a clear basis in any of Facebook’s previously stated policies, highlights for the millionth time that the dominant platforms are quite literally making up the rules of online speech as they go along. As I wrote in 2019, there’s just one golden rule of content moderation that every platform follows: If a policy becomes too controversial, change it.

This was never about respect for the office of the presidency, it was about deference to power.

Zuckerberg’s claim that Facebook has allowed Trump to use its platform in a manner “consistent with our own rules” is laughable. The only thing that has been consistent, until now, is Facebook’s determination to contort, hair-split, and reimagine its rules to make sure nothing Trump posted would fall too far outside them. The Washington Post wrote a rather definitive account of the social network’s yearslong Trump-appeasement campaign earlier this year. Among other Trump-friendly measures, the Post noted, “Facebook has constrained its efforts against false and misleading news, adopted a policy explicitly allowing politicians to lie, and even altered its news feed algorithm to neutralize claims that it was biased against conservative publishers.”

As recently as September 2019, Facebook was doubling down on its permissive approach to Trump. That’s when Facebook vice president Nick Clegg announced a broadening of the company’s “newsworthiness” exemption for posts by political leaders that would otherwise be subject to fact-checks or otherwise violate its rules — an exemption it had created, not coincidentally, the year Trump took office. “From now on, we will treat speech from politicians as newsworthy content that should, as a general rule, be seen and heard,” Clegg wrote. Trump, it seemed, was in the clear to post just about whatever he pleased. That same week, Zuckerberg had a friendly meeting with Trump in the Oval Office. The next month, Trump invited Zuckerberg to the White House for a secret, private dinner.

On Wednesday, with Trump’s grasp on power slipping away and historic mayhem unfolding at the U.S. Capitol, Facebook began hastily escalating its enforcement actions — first labeling two of his posts, then deleting them, then announcing a 24-hour suspension of his account. Meanwhile, some of Facebook’s own employees bitterly criticized the company on its internal forums for continuing to give Trump a platform, BuzzFeed News reported. Facebook responded by freezing comments on those internal discussion threads — freezing dissent along with it

Employee pressure may well have factored into Thursday’s decision to suspend Trump indefinitely. It’s worth noting that the suspension also came hours after Congress certified Joe Biden as president, dealing a seemingly decisive blow to Trump’s quixotic effort to keep power. Bending its rules for powerful leaders has often appeared to be part of Facebook’s strategy, in the United States as in the Philippines, Brazil, and India. That Zuckerberg suspended Trump the moment he lost his last modicum of political leverage, as opposed to the moment he was no longer president, is telling: This was never about respect for the office of the presidency, it was about deference to power.

Addressing employees at a company meeting Thursday, Facebook executives essentially admitted that the decision to suspend Trump was ad hoc, the New York Times’ Mike Isaac reported. Facebook has not responded to an inquiry from OneZero as to what rule the company was enforcing.

Facebook’s suspension of Trump now puts Twitter in an awkward position. On Wednesday, Twitter was ahead of Facebook in labeling Trump’s posts about the riots and temporarily suspending his account, but the company said he’d be reinstated within 12 hours if he deleted certain tweets, which he appears to have done. If Trump does indeed return to Twitter, the pressure on Twitter will ramp up to find a pretext on which to ban him as well.

The underlying problem here is not the rules themselves, but the fact that just a few, for-profit entities have such power over global speech and politics in the first place.

None of this is to say that Facebook is wrong to ban Trump, or that Twitter would be wrong to follow suit. There’s a good case to be made they should have done it well before now. While I’ve made the case for newsworthiness exemptions in the past, particularly on Twitter, it’s perfectly reasonable for media platforms to make judgment calls about the balance between newsworthiness and, say, public health or safety — as long as they admit that is in fact what they’re doing. It’s what true media organizations do every day. The only thing worse than constantly changing the rules would be stubbornly sticking to them when it’s clear they’re inadequate or misguided.

But the dominant platforms have always been loath to own up to their subjectivity, because it highlights the extraordinary, unfettered power they wield over the global public square, and places the responsibility for that power on their own shoulders. That in turn would make it clear that the underlying problem here is not the rules themselves, but the fact that just a few, for-profit entities have such power over global speech and politics in the first place. So they hide behind an ever-changing rulebook, alternately pointing to it when it’s convenient and shoving it under the nearest rug when it isn’t.

Now, Facebook is once again shoving its rulebook under the rug, and no doubt others will soon do the same. Sooner or later, they’ll roll out new rules that retroactively justify the decisions they’re making now — and spend a while defending those, before eventually abandoning them as well.

Senior Writer, OneZero, at Medium

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