Even after Jan. 6, Facebook didn’t want to deal once and for all with President Donald Trump’s poisonous lies, so it punted, first by suspending him “indefinitely,” and then by asking its blue-ribbon Oversight Board to review the decision. On Wednesday, the Oversight Board punted back. Over to you, Mark Zuckerberg.
We still don’t know whether Trump will ever be allowed back on Facebook and Instagram. But the board’s report tells us a great deal about Facebook’s ability to deal with hard questions honestly. It’s not promising.
“The Board sought clarification from Facebook about the extent to which the platform’s design decisions, including algorithms, policies, procedures and technical features, amplified Mr. Trump’s posts after the election and whether Facebook had conducted any internal analysis of whether such design decisions may have contributed to the events of January 6,” the oversight panel said in its 35-page report. “Facebook declined to answer these questions.”
This is the fundamental and inconvenient question that Zuckerberg, Facebook’s founder and CEO, has never wanted to face: To what extent did Facebook create the monster it now asks others to tame?
Seriously grappling with the answer might threaten the company’s wildly successful business model. Facebook has amassed an astounding 2.8 billion regular users worldwide, and its subsidiary Instagram has gathered 1 billion. Setting clear limits on what they can say and consume on those platforms would require the company to ban some of the people whose attention Facebook sells to other corporations. Others might leave.
Trump was indefinitely “suspended” from the two platforms for rhetorically embracing the rioters who invaded the Capitol on Jan. 6. But he had spent years polluting Facebook and Instagram with violent rhetoric and toxic lies, and in the weeks before Jan. 6 he claimed constantly, and falsely, that the election had been “stolen” from him and his supporters. To quantify another facet of the relationship, Ad Age estimates that Trump’s 2020 campaign spent $89.1 million on Facebook ads between April and October.
Twitter, Trump’s other big megaphone, banned him permanently two days after the insurrection. Facebook tried to have it both ways.
The company wanted the Oversight Board — an international group of 20 luminaries, convened in an effort to ward off government regulation — to relieve Zuckerberg and other executives of the burden of making a final call about Trump. Instead, the board found that Facebook was right to suspend Trump’s accounts on the two platforms, but was wrong to impose an open-ended suspension, which is not a sanction specified in the company’s terms of service. Facebook should either have suspended him for a certain length of time or permanently banned him, the panel said. In other words, Zuckerberg should make up his mind. The board gave Facebook six months to clarify its policies and then begin applying them consistently, including to the former president.
The panel did find that Trump, who has 35 million followers on Facebook and 24 million on Instagram, “severely” violated a rule “prohibiting praise or support of people engaged in violence” when he cheered the insurrectionists who were rampaging through the halls of the Capitol, calling them “very special” and “great patriots.”
Conservatives will surely continue to howl about “censorship” of their “free speech” by “woke” technology companies. Progressives will continue to be appalled at the use of social media platforms as weapons against our democracy. And anyone who hoped Wednesday’s ruling would offer a template for how social media firms should deal with political leaders and other powerful figures who commit gross abuses will be disappointed.
Nick Clegg, the former British politician who serves as Facebook’s chief spokesman, issued a terse statement saying the company will now “determine an action that is clear and proportionate” regarding Trump. Clegg also canceled an interview with me that had been scheduled for Wednesday afternoon to discuss the board’s report.
Clegg’s statement said Facebook will “carefully review” the panel’s recommendations about how the company’s policies about dealing with political figures should be revised and enforced. Zuckerberg has said in the past that Facebook recognizes a “newsworthiness” exception for some problematic content, but also that the company treats all its users the same. But even a cursory survey of any given week of Trump’s Facebook activity over the past five or six years indicates that some users are allowed to get away with more than others are.
The First Amendment’s guarantee of free speech does not apply to Facebook, which is a private company. But Zuckerberg has created what amounts to a vast public space. He can’t “bring the world closer together” if he continues to let the likes of Trump tear us apart.