Facebook board’s Trump decision could have wider impacts

by Joseph K. Clark


Politicians, free speech experts, and activists worldwide are watching the decision closely. It has implications not only for Trump but also for tech companies, world leaders, and people across the political spectrum — many of whom have wildly conflicting views of the proper role of technology companies in regulating online speech and protecting people from abuse and misinformation.

After years of handling Trump’s inflammatory rhetoric with a light touch, Facebook and Instagram took the drastic step of silencing his accounts in January. In announcing the unprecedented move, Facebook CEO Mark Zuckerberg said the risk of allowing Trump to continue using the platform was too significant.

“The shocking events of the last 24 hours demonstrate that President Donald Trump intends to use his remaining time in office to undermine the peaceful and lawful transition of power to his elected successor, Joe Biden,” Zuckerberg wrote on his Facebook page on Jan. 7.


A day before the announcement, Trump unveiled a new blog on his website, “From the Desk of Donald J. Trump.” While the page includes a dramatic video claiming, “A BEACON OF FREEDOM ARISES” and hailing “A PLACE TO SPEAK FREELY AND SAFELY,” the page is little more than a display of Trump’s recent statements — available elsewhere on the website — that can be easily shared on Facebook and Twitter, the platforms that banished him after the riot.

While Trump aides have spent months teasing his plans to launch his social media platform, his spokesman Jason Miller said the blog was separate.

“President Trump’s website is a great resource to find his latest statements and highlights from his first term in office, but this is not a new social media platform,” he tweeted. “We’ll have additional information coming on that front very shortly.”

Barred from social media, Trump has embraced other platforms for getting his message out. He does frequent interviews with friendly news outlets and has emailed a flurry of statements to reporters through his official office and political group.

Facebook created the oversight panel to rule on thorny content on its platforms, following widespread criticism of its difficulty responding swiftly and effectively to misinformation, hate speech, and nefarious influence campaigns. Its decisions so far — all nine of them — have tended to favor free expression over content restriction. Trump has even said he prefers the statements to his old tweets, often describing them as more “elegant.”

In its first rulings, the panel overturned four out of five decisions by the social network to take down questionable material. It ordered Facebook to restore posts by users that the company said broke standards on adult nudity, hate speech, or dangerous individuals.

However, critics of Facebook worry that the Oversight Board is a mere distraction from the company’s deeper problems — ones that can’t be addressed in a handful of high-profile cases by a semi-independent body of experts.

“Facebook set the rules, are judge, jury, and executioner, and control their own appeals court and Supreme Court. The decisions they make impact our democracies, national security, and biosecurity and cannot be left to their in-house theatre of the absurd,” said Imran Ahmed, CEO of the Center for Countering Digital Hate nonprofit critical of Facebook. “Whatever the judgment tomorrow, this whole fiasco shows why we need democratic regulation of Big Tech.”

Gautam Hans, technology law and free speech expert and professor at Vanderbilt University, said he finds the Oversight Board structure to be “frustrating and a bit of a sideshow from the larger policy and social questions that we have about these companies.”

“To some degree, Facebook is trying to create an accountability mechanism that undermines efforts to have government regulation and legislation,” Hans said. “If any other company decided we’re just going to outsource our decision-making to some quasi-independent body, that would be considered ridiculous. Associated Press Writer Jill Colvin contributed to this story.

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