In more than 1,400 posts from Jan. 1, 2020, to Jan. 6, 2021, Donald Trump used Facebook to spread false information with devastating consequences for the country.
It was not a close call in January to suspend him indefinitely from the world’s largest social media platform, with nearly 3 billion user accounts. The insurrection at the Capitol on Jan. 6 made that obvious.
And it should not have been a close call — or anything to agonize about — for Facebook to keep him off the platform permanently.
But agonize is apparently what the Facebook Oversight Board did, according to the weak-kneed decision the company’s quasi-independent watchdog announced Wednesday morning, after weeks spent mulling whether Trump’s punishment was appropriate. The board faulted Facebook for suspending Trump indefinitely, without clear criteria for when and whether he would return. But it also left the ban in place and told leadership to reevaluate it within six months.
“This verdict is a desperate attempt to have it both ways,” responded a London-based group of academics and advocates that calls itself the Real Facebook Oversight Board.
“Facebook knew what needed to be done all along,” charged Angelo Carusone, president of the left-leaning group Media Matters for America, which analyzed Trump’s posts, determining that about a quarter of them spread misinformation from the start of 2020 to this past Jan. 6.
Last July, for example, Trump posted that U.S. deaths from the coronavirus were “just about the lowest in the world,” and that they were “way down, a tenfold decrease” from the height of the pandemic. In fact, the country was just entering a deadly summer surge of infections.
Last spring, he used Facebook to defend his horrendous comments about civil rights protests that followed the murder of George Floyd in Minneapolis: “When the looting starts, the shooting starts.”
And on New Year’s Day, Trump’s Facebook posts called on his followers to “stop the steal” and promoted the “BIG protest rally in Washington, D.C. on Jan. 6.”
Facebook finally suspended his account when that rally provoked a deadly riot at the U.S. Capitol.
Too little, too late. And yet, according to the oversight board’s non-decision Wednesday, somehow also too far.
“It was not appropriate for Facebook to impose an ‘indefinite’ suspension,” the board wrote. “It is not permissible for Facebook to keep a user off the platform for an undefined period, with no criteria for when or whether the account will be restored.” It’s the sort of technical hairsplitting that might be appropriate if the user in question were a foul-mouthed teenager, not a world leader whose words were getting people killed.
The board is well-intentioned, I have no doubt. Starting last fall, this “Supreme Court of Facebook” began to make binding content-moderation decisions — for instance, to remove or not remove a particular post — that come their way after the company’s internal review process has run its course. Its members are an impressive lot, including Alan Rusbridger, former editor of the Guardian newspaper, and Helle Thorning-Schmit, the former prime minister of Denmark.
They are understandably concerned about the complex interplay between free-speech issues and public welfare.
So it doesn’t surprise me that some admirable champions of the First Amendment cheered the board’s move, which does, after all, keep Trump off Facebook for now.
“The board’s ruling is thoughtful and persuasive,” said Jameel Jaffer, executive director of the Knight First Amendment Institute, praising not only the main ruling but also the board’s directive that Facebook investigate its own role in amplifying Trump’s dangerous speech and contributing to the events of Jan. 6.
I suspect this will work about as well as assigning the fox to investigate his role in the bloody trail of feathers outside the henhouse.
What was called for here was a clear, unambiguous message: That a hugely influential public official — arguably the most powerful person in the world — can’t use Facebook to endanger the public welfare. And once he does just that, hundreds of times, he can’t come back.
What’s more, we already have solid indications that Facebook’s “not appropriate” suspension did society a lot of good.
Online misinformation about election fraud plummeted by 73 percent the week after various social media sites — particularly Twitter — banned Trump from their platforms in January, a research firm found.
Here’s the real problem: The oversight board was a flawed idea from the start. As tech journalist and Recode founder Kara Swisher put it, its members were charged with the impossible — “trying to push back the ocean with one hand.”
Such self-regulation “is an excellent way to appear to promote particular values and keep scrutiny and regulation to a minimum,” University of Virginia media studies professor Siva Vaidhyanathan observed last year.
At its core, the board is a high-priced fig leaf meant to avoid real accountability. Mission accomplished.
(Correction: An earlier version of this column reported that former president Donald Trump wrote more than 1,400 Facebook posts on Jan. 1, 2020, and Jan. 6, 2021, instead of between those dates. The version has been corrected.)
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