But the effect of the Oversight Board’s decision — which upheld the ban of Trump on Facebook and Instagram but called for its indefinite nature to be reviewed — will not be confined to U.S. borders. It is fundamentally global in nature. Trump is far from the only world leader to be accused of abusing social media; he is a test case for how political leaders will be treated by the platform in the future.
Wednesday’s decision will affect nations that “faced systemic violence because their leaders — people like [India’s Narendra] Modi, people like [the Philippines’ Rodrigo] Duterte and others — have walked through the loopholes that Facebook created for Trump starting in 2015,” said Heidi Beirich, chief strategy officer at the Global Project Against Hate and Extremism.
“We’re looking for systemic solutions that will stop the impunity,” said Maria Ressa, the pioneering but targeted Filipina journalist who co-founded the Rappler news website. Ressa, like Beirich, was speaking at a virtual meeting of the unofficial Real Facebook Oversight Board, where experts on extremism were uniformly critical of the tech giant on Wednesday.
The official Oversight Board, itself a global project with only five out of 20 experts based in the United States, made clear that its policy recommendations didn’t stop with Trump. It called on Facebook to similarly suspend accounts of world leaders whose posts “pose a risk of harm,” noting that “heads of state and other high officials of government can have a greater power to cause harm than other people.” And it warned that other influential figures could also pose a danger.
Aside from calling for a review of the duration of Trump’s ban from Facebook within the next six months, the group recommended that the technology firm hire “staff who are familiar with the linguistic and political context” to evaluate the language of world leaders.
“These staff should be insulated from political and economic interference, as well as undue influence,” the board said in its statement.
That proposal could cause a huge headache for Facebook. Historically, social media companies have been wary of stepping into political debates anywhere, including in the United States. Tracking and ruling on these issues becomes more complex when considering foreign countries, with different languages, histories and cultures.
As became clear during the anti-Rohingya violence in Myanmar from 2017 onward, hate speech can spread quickly on Facebook, with severe real-world consequences. But stopping this speech requires complex decision-making by skilled moderators, as Zuckerberg himself has admitted in public comments.
“The definition of hate speech or things that can be racially coded to incite violence are very language-specific, and we can’t do that with just English speakers for people around the world,” Zuckerberg said during an appearance on Capitol Hill in April 2018.
And when it comes to world leaders, the list of those with a controversial relationship with Facebook extends far beyond Trump. Aside from Modi and Duterte, Brazilian President Jair Bolsonaro and the government of Hungarian Prime Minister Viktor Orbán have also feuded with the company. Comparatively little-known leaders in the West, such as Cambodia’s Hun Sen, have also been linked to controversial practices on the platform.
Facebook has only intermittently pushed back on these leaders — and often it has faced pushback in turn. Though Facebook and Twitter eventually kicked Trump off their platforms, they did so only after he was decisively beaten in the 2020 presidential election and was accused of inciting an insurrection at the Capitol.
He was the first and so far the only head of state to be permanently suspended, although Facebook put in place a month-long suspension of Venezuelan President Nicolás Maduro in March after accusing him of spreading coronavirus misinformation. Myanmar’s military was also blocked from the social network after a Feb. 1 coup ousted the country’s democratically elected leaders.
Among Facebook’s staff, the perceived lack of action has sometimes caused dissent. My colleagues Miriam Berger and Elizabeth Dwoskin reported earlier this year that one employee resigned in protest after Facebook declined to remove comments made by Brazil’s Bolsonaro in January 2020 about Indigenous people, which he felt constituted “dehumanizing speech” but Facebook policy experts said did not.
Some governments have been able to play social media giants at their own game. In India, the government has tried to use domestic laws to compel Facebook and other social media companies to remove posts by opponents. Last month, Facebook temporarily blocked a hashtag that called on Modi to resign, though it later said the move was a “mistake.”
Social media companies have good reason to be concerned about a political backlash, of course. After Trump was banned from Facebook and Twitter in January, at least two ruling governments — one on the left in Mexico and another on the right in Poland — suggested policies to curb the companies’ power.
The concern wasn’t limited to populists. German Chancellor Angela Merkel said at the time that the permanent suspension of Trump’s social media accounts was a “problematic” restriction on freedom of speech, according to a spokesperson.
Taking center stage in global debates about the limits of free speech has proved uncomfortable for a company founded by a teenager in a Harvard dorm. And perhaps just as importantly, for a publicly traded company with shareholders all around the world, it’s potentially unprofitable.
The reported $130 million it spent on setting up the Oversight Board is not going to get Facebook out of making political decisions. The board’s recommendations after Trump’s ban made clear that it expected not only that Facebook spell out clearer rules that could potentially affect world leaders, but also that it spend significant sums of money to ensure they are adequately enforced.
Some critics of the board, including members of the Real Facebook Oversight Board and others, feel like its punt was cowardly. But writing for Lawfare, Australian legal expert Evelyn Douek makes a case that the decision shows some of the promise of the independent board. Either way, the board’s decision Wednesday marked the next stage in a long saga of adjudicating acceptable speech, rather than a decisive ending.
As Douek notes, “The long international nightmare is not over.”