The upcoming decision from Facebook’s independent Oversight Board on whether to uphold or reverse Facebook’s indefinite suspension of former President Trump’s profiles has policymakers on edge.
Why it matters: The decision will set a historic precedent for how the tech giant treats accounts of world leaders, and could be a litmus test for the board’s power.
- Facebook helped establish the Oversight Board with $130 million in funding in 2019 to review user appeals of Facebook’s content moderation choices.
- Its independence has been questioned by Facebook critics, but its first few case decisions this year suggest the board isn’t afraid to disagree with Facebook, and it tends to err on the side of free speech.
- Trump was the only case in which Facebook has indefinitely suspended a sitting head of state, but the company has begun taking action on other world leaders’ accounts. It froze Venezuelan President Nicolas Maduro’s page for 30 days in March for violating Facebook’s policies against spreading COVID-19 misinformation.
Details: “I’m less concerned about the fate of Donald Trump as much as I am about the precedent that this is setting for the removal and de-platforming of everyone else,” Rep. Ro Khanna (D-Calif.) told Axios.
- Khanna warned that bringing President Trump back to the platform immediately may not be the best approach.
- “At the very least” there should be a long waiting period before he’s brought back on, he argued. “[W]e still get threats at the Capitol of people who are inflamed by what he did, so it doesn’t seem to me that there’s been enough time that has elapsed.”
Conservatives Axios spoke to are still angry about the decision. “While I would be glad to see Mark Zuckerberg’s ‘Supreme Court’ deliver a check on his conceit, I will not be celebrating,” says Rep. Jim Banks, chair of the Republican Study Committee, the largest conservative caucus in the House.
- “No corporate CEO or their ‘oversight board’ should be more powerful than the leaders you elect,” he said.
- “Facebook’s content moderation standards are not applied in a fair and neutral manner,” says Rep. Ken Buck (R-Colo.), ranking member of the House Judiciary subcommittee on antitrust.
- “If this were true, world leaders who spew violent speech like the Ayatollah of Iran or Chinese Communist Party officials would be de-platformed.”
The big picture: Around the world, state leaders have condemned Trump’s account bans by social media giants, arguing that having platforms freeze the pages of world leaders is a slippery slope.
- German Chancellor Angela Merkel has called the bans “problematic.” Mexican President Andrés Manuel López Obrador called them “censorship.” Brazilian President Jair Bolsonaro has urged his followers to boycott the platforms. Polish officials say they plan to make social media bans illegal.
Sources at Facebook tell Axios the company was initially expecting the board to uphold its decision, given that so many other platforms made similar calls in light of the Capitol attack.
- Facebook VP of global affairs Nick Clegg told Axios in January, following the Board referral, “I very much hope and can expect … that they will uphold our decision.”
Be smart: Even if the board were to reverse Facebook’s decision and mandate the reinstatement of Trump’s accounts both on Facebook and Instagram, Facebook has preserved its freedom of action over broader policy.
- The company has committed to following the board’s decisions as they pertain to specific posts and accounts, but it says it will treat the board’s wider policy recommendations as suggestions.
- It’s unlikely Facebook wouldn’t take those recommendations seriously, given that it explicitly asked the Board for more guidance about these issues when it punted the case over for consideration.
- Facebook is required to issue a public reaction to the decision and any policy recommendations within 30 days of the decision explaining how it will handle the recommendations.
Catch up quick: Facebook established the Oversight Board in 2019 to review appeals of the company’s controversial decisions around speech.
- On January 21, the day after Biden’s inauguration, the company said it would refer its decision to indefinitely suspend Trump’s personal accounts following the Capitol siege to the Oversight Board.
- The board immediately agreed to take on the case, and at the time said it would make its decision public within 90 days, i.e. by April 20.
- But the board updated its bylaws when it agreed to take the Trump case, giving it the option of extending the 90-day deadline in exceptional circumstances.
Last Friday, the Oversight Board told members of the press that it would delay its decision and make an announcement “in the coming weeks,” citing the volume of public comments on the case.
- The board received over 9,000 comments related to the case.
- Worth noting: The ban applies only to Donald Trump’s personal accounts. Facebook began transferring millions of followers over from all of the official White House accounts to the Biden administration in January.
What to watch: A board decision to uphold Facebook’s ban of Trump’s accounts could spark wide outrage among conservatives who have long argued that tech platforms like Facebook and Twitter are biased against them.