Brief #48 – Technology
Facebook Extends Trump Ban For 2 Years
By Scout Burchill
June 6, 2021
After an initial review from the Oversight Board, Facebook finally announced the company’s decision on the fate of former president Donald Trump’s account. In a blog post, the Facebook Vice President of Global Affairs Nick Clegg responded to the Oversight Board’s charge that the company’s initial decision of an indefinite punishment was ‘not appropriate’ by announcing that Trump’s ban would be in effect for 2 years starting from January 7th. This will keep Trump off Facebook through the 2022 primary season. At the end of this period, Facebook will “look to experts to assess whether the risk to public safety has receded” and if not, it will extend the ban for another set period of time.
Facebook also responded to the Oversight Board’s criticisms of its ‘newsworthiness’ policy in which the platform allows posts to remain up if they are deemed to be important or in the public’s interest even though they violate Facebook’s Community Standards. The company insisted that going forward they would not treat politicians differently than other users and would make public instances when the newsworthiness standard is applied. Additionally, Facebook also stated that it would publish its “strike policy” so that users can better understand what type of content and actions will be penalized.
Trump responded to the decision by calling it “an insult to the record-setting 75M people, plus many others, who voted for us in the 2020 Rigged Presidential Election.” He also added a personal message for the CEO of Facebook, Mark Zuckerberg, declaring that the “next time I’m in the White House there will be no more dinners, at his request, with Mark Zuckerberg and his wife.” Since Trump’s bans from social media, he has effectively been muzzled. His attempt to create his own platform, Trump’s Desk, failed to gain traction and was abandoned last week.
While Facebook may be trying to respond to criticisms that its penalties are vague and indiscriminate, this decision fails to demonstrate the company is taking these criticisms to heart. Despite introducing a color-coded sliding scale of penalties for users, it’s the vague language that does most of the heavy lifting. For example, Trump is definitely banned until January 7, 2023, but what happens after that date is extremely unclear. Facebook claims it will rely on experts to assess things like levels of civil unrest and potential risks to public safety. Which experts and how exactly they will measure potential risks are anybody’s guess. If by chance some new domestic unrest is brewing around the same time Trump is up for his Facebook parole, it seems safe to assume he’ll surely be denied. In effect, Facebook could just keep extending this ban indefinitely by re-banning Trump every couple of years.
Ultimately, this logic seems backwards. Trump’s incendiary messages and blatant disregard for truth were obviously major factors in creating civil unrest in the United States in the first place. If they weren’t, then Facebook wouldn’t have suspended his account! How they will assess the potential dangers of introducing him back into an environment in which he has been absent for two years seems like it might require at least some measure of speculation. In other words, more ambiguity and vague standards. This kind of assessment and the two year timing makes it seem as if Facebook is just hoping the Trump train runs out of steam by the time the next presidential election cycle rolls around. Cutting off his ability to communicate with his base is definitely one way to pump the brakes on the Trump train.
Their reasoning also seems to suggest that America’s deep polarization and divisions are all Trump’s fault, as if America will now slowly return to a state of normal in the absence of the former Arsonist in Chief. This incredibly naive expectation seems like an easy way for Facebook to absolve itself of any responsibility for the current state of affairs. As profiled many times before, Facebook’s business model thrives off of conflict, sensationalism and outrage. In actuality, Trump’s rise to power was a symptom of a failing system stinking of rot, injustice, inequality, distrust and disdain. The information ecosystem that Facebook helped create contributed to this dismal state of affairs. Just because Trump’s gone America will not magically return to normal. In fact, whatever normal was before 2016, it proved to be a good time for someone like Trump to run for president.
One of the more positive outcomes of Facebook’s decision is its attempt to make its newsworthiness standard and strike policy more transparent. However, in this area too the language is sorely lacking in precision. For instance, Facebook declares they will no longer give preferential treatment to politicians and will instead “simply” apply their “newsworthiness balancing test” to all content. Of course this balancing test “simply” consists of “measuring whether the public interest value of the content outweighs the potential risk of harm by leaving it up.” On a separate page Facebook lays out some factors for newsworthiness that include whether or not a country is holding elections, at war or has a free press. Facebook’s promise to publish when a newsworthiness exception applies will be an interesting development to follow, and may be the only meaningful change bringing a bit of transparency to Facebook’s content moderation decisions.
In the end, there is a strange sense that Facebook is attempting to resolve extremely complex questions of freedom expression, due process and justice in ways that it is fundamentally unable to do, and frankly not in the business of doing. The back and forth between the Oversight Board and Facebook policy makers is a strange boardroom dance that is meant to give the company a veneer of accountability and transparency, but in this instance, very little seems to have actually been accomplished. But maybe that’s actually the point.
New York Times on Facebook’s Decision
Trump’s Desk Shuts Down