Facebook unceremoniously confiscated Trump’s biggest megaphone on social media months ago, but the former president could be close to getting it back.
Facebook’s Supervisory Board, an external Supreme Court-like political decision-making group, will either reinstate Trump’s Facebook privileges or ban him forever on Wednesday. Whatever happens, it’s a huge time for Facebook’s nascent experiment in outsourcing hard content moderation calling on an elite group of thinkers, academics and politicians around the world and their setting precedents that could shape the world’s greatest social networks for years to come.
Facebook CEO Mark Zuckerberg announced Trump’s suspension from Facebook in the aftermath of the Capitol attack. It was initially a temporary suspension, but two weeks later Facebook said the decision would go to the Supervisory Board. “We believe the risks of allowing the president to continue using our service during this time are just too great,” Facebook CEO Mark Zuckerberg wrote in January.
Facebook Vice President of Global Affairs Nick Clegg, a former British politician, expressed hope that the board would support the company’s own conclusions, calling Trump’s suspension a “set of events without precedent that called for unprecedented action ”.
Trump ignited tensions and instigated violence on January 6, but this incident was not without precedent. In the aftermath of the murder of George Floyd, an unarmed black man killed by Minneapolis police, President Trump ominously declared on social media “when the looting begins, the shooting begins,” an imminent threat of violence at its roots racists that Facebook refused to take action against, sparking internal company protests.
The former president has bypassed or crossed the line with Facebook several times during his four years in office, but the platform firmly supported a maxim that any speech is good speech, even as other social networks became more and more delicate.
In a dramatic speech at the end of 2019, Zuckerberg referred to Martin Luther King Jr. in defending Facebook’s all is well approach. “In times of social unrest, our impulse is often to withdraw from free speech,” Zuckerberg said. “We want the progress that comes from free expression, but not the tension.” King’s daughter vigorously objected.
A little over a year later, with all of Facebook’s peers doing the same and Trump stepping down, Zuckerberg would step down from his big free speech declarations.
In 2019 and until 2020, Facebook was still a hotbed of disinformation, conspiracies and extremism. The social network has hosted thousands of armed militias organizing for violence and a sea of QAnon-amplifying content, which has grown from a marginal belief to a mainstream political phenomenon via Facebook.
Those same forces would converge on the U.S. Capitol on January 6 for a day of violence that Facebook executives would describe as spontaneous, even though it had been openly spreading on the platform for months.
Functioning of the Supervisory Board
Facebook’s watchdog committee began reviewing its first cases last October. Facebook can refer cases to the board, as it did with Trump, but users can also appeal to the board to overturn policy decisions that affect them after exhausting Facebook or Instagram’s normal appeals process. A five-member subset of its 20 total members assess whether the content should be allowed to remain on the platform, and then make a decision, which the full board must approve by majority vote. Initially, the Supervisory Board was only empowered to reinstate deleted content on Facebook and Instagram, but in mid-April it began accepting requests for review of controversial content that remained outstanding.
Last month, the Supervisory Board replaced Pamela Karlan, outgoing member, Stanford professor and critical voting rights specialist for Trump, who left to join the Biden administration. Karlan’s replacement, PEN America CEO Susan Nossel, wrote an op-ed in the LA Times at the end of January, claiming that extending a permanent ban on Trump “may feel good” but that the move would ultimately create a dangerous precedent. Nossel joined the board too late to participate in the Trump decision.
The first round of Supervisory Board decisions tipped towards restoring content that was deleted – not confirming its deletion. While the other board decisions are likely to touch the full spectrum of the frustration people have with Facebook’s content moderation preferences, they come with far less baggage than the Trump decision. . In one case, the Supervisory Board voted to restore an image of a woman’s nipples used in the context of a breast cancer post. In another, the board decided that a quote from a famous Nazi did not deserve to be removed because it did not support Nazi ideology. Either way, the Supervisory Board can make policy recommendations, but Facebook doesn’t have to implement them – just decisions.
In keeping with its DNA of global activists, politicians and academics, the Supervisory Board could have ambitions far beyond a single social network. Earlier this year, Supervisory Board co-chair and former Prime Minister of Denmark Helle Thorning-Schmidt said other social media companies would be “welcome” to join the project, which is marked in a way obviously without Facebook. (The group calls itself the “Supervisory Board”, although everyone calls it “Facebook’s Supervisory Board”.)
“For the first time in history, we actually have content moderation outside of one of the big social media platforms,” said Grand Thorning-Schmidt. “That in itself … I don’t hesitate to call it historic.”
Facebook’s decision to outsource some major policy decisions is indeed an experimental decision, but this experiment is only just beginning. The Trump case will give Facebook’s miniaturized Supreme Court an opportunity to send a message, though the bottom line is that he’s powerful enough to keep a world leader muzzled or independent enough to stand out from his crowd. parent and reverse social media’s biggest political decision ever. that remains to be seen.
If Trump returns, the company can shrug its shoulders and sidestep yet another PR storm, happy to have its experience moderating external content legitimized. If the board doubles its intention to ban Trump, Facebook will be safe in the knowledge that someone else can take the shock this turn in its most controversial content appeal to date. For Facebook, for once, it’s a win-win situation.