Trump ban decision shows the limits of a Facebook ‘Supreme Court’

The Oversight Board, an unbiased body create by Facebook to review difficult moderation decisions created by the social media giant, has said the firm was to remove potentially incendiary posts by former US president Donald Trump.

The board also said that Facebook must follow its rules and either ban Trump permanently from Facebook and Instagram or reopen his accounts, instead of leaving him with an indefinite suspension. Effectively, the board has passed a contentious, high-profile problem back again to Facebook to select.

In January, as his supporters staged a violent protest at the united states Capitol building, Trump posted messages on Facebook urging them to leave peacefully, but also alleging that the US election have been illegally tampered with against his favour. Facebook swiftly removed the messages and finally indefinitely banned him from the platform.

The Oversight Board has now said that Facebook wasn’t after its own clear rules and that Trump’s account should either be permanently deleted or a time-bounded ban with a clear end point is needed. It has told Facebook that it has half a year to reassess its actions and decide which route to take: reinstate the former president’s account or delete it forever.

Read more: Facebook vs Australia and the brand new battle to cut big tech right down to size

“In applying a vague, standardless penalty and referring this case to the Board to solve, Facebook seeks to avoid its responsibilities,’ the board said in a statement.

Here, the Oversight Board is echoing critics that say Facebook is using the board to protect itself from high-profile decisions, instead of it serving as a genuine watchdog to hold the business to account. After one early decision about hate speech posts, Eric Naing from US civil rights group Muslim Advocates said that “instead of taking meaningful action to curb dangerous hate speech on the platform, Facebook punted responsibility”.

In a 2018 interview, prior to the board was created, Facebook CEO Mark Zuckerberg suggested a Supreme Court-like body could rule on Facebook’s decisions. Much coverage of the board identifies it as such, nonetheless it has no court-like powers.

This is merely the 10th decision the Oversight Board has made because the original members were announced in-may 2020. So far, six of those have already been made against Facebook’s call and three – like the Trump decision, which is arguably the most sensitive of most – have backed the business. The other decision was abandoned after the user in question deleted their post.

Matthias Kettemann at the Leibniz Institute for Media Research in Hamburg, Germany, says your choice is “nuanced, and kicks the ball back to Facebook’s court”.

“Trump can be punished, however, not arbitrarily. And Facebook must enter a reflection process about how its rules and procedures contributed to societal tensions,” he says.

The decision also calls on Facebook to launch a comprehensive overview of its “potential contribution to the narrative of electoral fraud”, which Kettemann says was a request made in submissions to the board from civil society activists and academics.

Board member Nicolas Suzor, a law professor at Queensland University of Technology, Australia, says there are big problems for Facebook to tackle, such as whether the way it amplifies news aligns with society’s aims, and whether algorithms and human moderators are too strict on moderation and for that reason impinge on free speech, or are too lax and invite hate speech to flourish. “These problems cannot be addressed until Facebook becomes more transparent about how precisely the algorithms work,” he says.

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“The reason why I joined the Oversight Board is that I’ve always been a critic of how Facebook wasn’t, for me, taking seriously enough the social problems it had been adding to,” says Suzor. “I certainly wouldn’t be here easily thought that people didn’t have a shot at making Facebook better. I’m not so naive to believe that’s likely to be easy.”

In a blog page post, Facebook’s Nick Clegg said he believed the initial decision was both necessary and right. “We will now consider the board’s decision and determine an action that’s clear and proportionate. In the meantime, Mr. Trump’s accounts remain suspended.”

Whatever the decision, Trump isn’t waiting for his accounts to be reinstated. This week, he launched a website where he promises to issue updates from the desk of the former president. It remains to be observed whether he can perform the global influence he once had without the capability to post on mainstream social media platforms.

Facebook didn’t respond to a request to comment.

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