Tackling Trump: Facebook oversight board prevents social media return, for now…

May 16, 2021

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3 min read

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What's going on here?

Facebook’s Oversight Board recently ruled to uphold Donald Trump’s indefinite suspension after the US Capitol riots in January 2021.

What does this mean?

On Wednesday 6 January, former president Donald Trump was suspended from social media sites including Facebook, Twitter and YouTube following his posts surrounding the storming of the US Capitol. Trump was removed over fears his presence caused a risk of violence; Facebook CEO Mark Zuckerberg at the time said the danger associated with keeping Trump online was “simply too great”. However, Facebook’s initial ban of Trump was billed as an “indefinite suspension” leaving the possibility of his return subject to Facebook’s discretion.

In February 2021, Zuckerberg set up an Oversight Board to review and rule on Facebook’s decisions over content removal and user suspensions. The board is made up of 20 members including journalists, human rights activists, lawyers and the former Prime Minister of Denmark. Funded by a $130 million trust, Facebook has stressed the Board’s independence. Indeed, once a decision has been made it cannot be overturned or challenged by Facebook. The Board has been delegated the difficult challenge of promoting free speech whilst simultaneously preventing harmful content from spreading online.

This case marks the Board’s most significant case to date. After reviewing Trump’s posts and over 9000 public comments, they decided that whilst Facebook was rightful to remove Trump initially, “it was not appropriate for Facebook to impose the indeterminate and standardless penalty of indefinite suspension”. The board effectively shifted responsibility back to Facebook, saying the site must review its rules and make a decision to either outright ban Trump or permit his return.

What's the big picture effect?

Following the Capitol Riots, Trump was banned from both Twitter and Facebook. While Twitter has stated that its ban is final, this case marks the first instance of mainstream social media channels having their own decisions reviewed by a quasi-internal court. Trump called the decision not to immediately overturn the suspension of his account which had 24 million followers a “total disgrace”. This statement has been joined by condemnation of the decision across the political spectrum,  with Senator Bernie Sanders expressing his not “feel[ing] comfortable” with such indefinite bans. There is a fine line between preventing the spread of online hate speech and censorship. In the interests of protecting freedom of expression, if Facebook wishes to uphold Trump’s ban the Board has insisted they provide clear evidence to support its stance on this pertinent issue. 

Facebook has been criticised for its attempt to shift imperative decision making regarding free speech issues to a third-party board. A group of activists and academics have assembled to challenge Facebook’s decision to delegate this vital work and the integrity of the Board itself, going by the title “The Real Facebook Oversight Board”. In the aftermath of the decision the group said, “this verdict is a desperate attempt to have it both ways, upholding the “ban” of Donald Trump without actually banning him”.

However, the Board is clearly aware of Facebook’s attempt to absolve itself of responsibility as they refused to rule on the issue. In the delivery of its judgment the Board stated, “in applying a vague, standardless penalty and then referring this case to the Board to resolve, Facebook seeks to avoid its responsibilities”. It is apparent this expert board ultimately believes such decisions should be left to the platform itself. 

This decision has widened the debate over who is responsible for monitoring the removal of online content. The Board’s judgement is unlikely to sit well with Facebook who have shied away from ruling on contentious issues. As a profit focused organisation, Facebook is unlikely to want to make decisions over divisive free speech issues which have the potential to cause controversy and tarnish its reputation. However in the eyes of those who deem Facebook responsible for controlling the content on its platform, reputational damage may have already been done. If Facebook does not assume responsibility for the content on its site, perhaps governments will ultimately be forced to step in and legislate for the platform.

Report written by Amber Allen

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