There’s a chance — even if it’s just a slim one — that Donald Trump could get his Facebook back.
On Thursday, Facebook said that it asked an independent group called the Facebook oversight board to review the company’s decision earlier this month to indefinitely suspend the now-former US president. The oversight board, a group of academics, journalists, and policy experts from around the world, was created to review Facebook’s content moderation decisions. It got started late last year and has enough power that it can overrule even Facebook CEO Mark Zuckerberg, who controversially resisted calls to moderate Trump’s posts for almost his entire presidency.
The board quickly accepted the Trump suspension case and anticipates making a decision within three months. If it decides Facebook was wrong to boot the president, Trump could potentially return to posting on Facebook (as well as Facebook-owned Instagram), platforms where he had tens of millions of followers and often posted political misinformation and incendiary content.
Facebook indefinitely suspended Trump’s account on January 7, the day after a rally repeatedly encouraged by the president turned into a deadly riot at the US Capitol. Twitter followed suit and permanently suspended Trump from its platform. Finally, YouTube froze Trump’s account through the inauguration, and on January 19 extended its ban by another week.
Facebook said on Thursday that it believes its historic decision to ban the president was a necessary move. Some criticized its ban on the president in his final days in office, saying it came too late; others argued the ban constitutes unprecedented censorship of a world leader. When Facebook indefinitely suspended his account, the company cited concerns that the president might use the platform to stoke further violence, noting the “extraordinary circumstances” of a “US president actively fomenting a violent insurrection designed to thwart the peaceful transition of power.”
“This has never happened before — and we hope it will never happen again. It was an unprecedented set of events which called for unprecedented action,” wrote Nick Clegg, the company’s VP for global affairs and communications, in a Thursday blog post announcing the decision to refer the issue to its oversight board.
Facebook made a clear judgment call when it banned Trump, even if under extraordinary circumstances — but the company continues to insist that it is merely a neutral platform and doesn’t want the responsibility of determining what content should and should not appear on its platform. Referring its decision to the oversight board is a way for Facebook to distance itself from that decision-making role.
Now, the board will consider the case over the next 90 days, and Facebook is supposed to institute whatever decision it comes to within a week. In the meantime, feedback is open to the public, and even Trump will be able to express his opinion and make his own arguments for why he should be reinstated on the platform. A Trump campaign spokesperson did not immediately respond to a request for comment.
This case on whether or not Trump should remain banned from Facebook will be the first major test for the Facebook oversight board, which launched right before the US presidential election and has gotten off to a slow start. Trump’s case could set a precedent for how the world’s largest social networks treat world leaders in the future.
Facebook’s call to suspend Trump also drives home the limitations of the board. Facebook first acted without involving it, likely because the board’s review process takes time, and when the US president is using his Facebook to fuel violent insurrectionists, it necessitates a speedy decision.
At the same time, some say that Thursday’s announcement is just another way for Facebook to obfuscate its own role in giving Trump a platform to encourage the insurrection. “We are concerned that Facebook is using its oversight board as a figleaf to cover its lack of open, transparent, coherent moderation policies, its continued failure to act against inciters of hate and violence and the tsunami of mis- and disinformation that continues to flood its platform,“ said a group of Facebook critics, made up of journalists, experts, and activists, that call themselves the Real Facebook Oversight Board. “This case exposes the dangerous inadequacy of Facebook’s ability to police itself: it can’t. This underlines the urgent necessity for regulation now.”
Right now, it’s not clear what decision the board will make on Trump’s case. But either way, it’s helping Facebook in its quest to appear as neutral as possible — even if reality suggests otherwise.
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