Facebook Oversight Board’s Trump Decision Is Just the Beginning
Former President Donald Trump is, as of this moment, still banned from Facebook, but before you cheer or deride the decision, know this: The Reckoning is just beginning.
The Oversight Board agreed with Facebook’s initial actions: kicking Trump off its platforms (Facebook and Instagram) as the Capitol riots unfolded and then extended it indefinitely the next day. However, the board, which operates independently of Facebook, also called out the social media giant for seeking to avoid its responsibilities. Facebook tried punting on the long-term decision to permanently ban the ex-president.
Now, however, the ball is back in Facebook’s court. Will it decide to, as Twitter did on January 8, permanently ban Trump’s widely followed Twitter account “due to the risk of further incitement of violence”? Or will it lift its ban when, as YouTube plans, the risk of violence decreases?
The problem, as the Oversight Board noted, is that Facebook has not worked out how to properly delineate between what it deems “newsworthy posts” and posts from people with outsized influence. As president, Trump checked both boxes but his position appears to have clouded Facebook’s initial judgment on the potential danger posed by his posts during the Capitol attack.
What the Oversight Board is forcing Facebook to grapple with is the reality that even the president of the United States can’t post, “Fire!” in a crowded democracy. Not everything a world leader says is news and not everything an influencer posts is safe or factual.
As all this unfolds, the protections provided to social media platforms against shouldering the full burden of responsibility for content posted on their platforms is crumbling. The now widely debated Section 230 of the Communications Decency Act, which provides protections to tech and social media companies, is sure to change this year or next.
If Facebook could be held responsible for the content users post, it will likely act much more swiftly, pulling anything that even has a whiff of violence, hate, or insurrection. Scale, though, will remain a problem as billions of people add millions of posts each day, with much of it hidden from all but a relatively small group of Facebook friends.
In the meantime, Facebook, Twitter, and others could lose the ability to boot or ban users from their services if, as Supreme Court Justice Clarence Thomas suggested last month, we start categorizing them as common carriers (something akin to telephone service providers). I’m not certain how Facebook, Twitter, and YouTube can both be responsible for the content posted on their platforms while simultaneously losing the ability to remove those who do not follow their rules.
Perhaps Thomas envisions a world where the rules for social media discourse are set and managed outside the control of each platform and that the decision to keep people off these platforms becomes a question of law, not business.
This decision by the Facebook Oversight Board is far from the end of this painful chapter in social media and U.S. history. There will be more court cases, more questions on regulations, and more tough decisions for Facebook and others to make.
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