The headlines and social media narrative are generally positive today, as the Facebook Oversight Board claims it will “uphold the ban” on Donald Trump’s account. It may seem like a good thing that for the near future at least, Trump won’t be on the platform. In reality, we are playing with fire. The board has not upheld the ban, rather it has kicked back the decision-making power to Facebook and Zuckerberg, opening up the very real possibility of Trump causing havoc on the site once again within 6 months.
The announcement was carefully worded, but the reality of the situation is clear. Although the beginning of the announcement states that the board “has upheld Facebook’s decision on January 7th, 2021, to restrict then-President Donald Trump’s access to posting content”, it later goes on to say that the board “insists that Facebook review this matter to determine and justify a proportionate response that is consistent with the rules applied to other users of its platform”. This essentially negates the first sentence. Since the board insists Facebook decide on a “proportionate” response, effectively allowing them to make the entire decision, they are not upholding anything.
The Oversight Board desperately wants to have it both ways – but they can’t get credit for banning Trump without actually banning him. Facebook’s narrative, that the O.B. is an independent “supreme court” that will hold Facebook accountable, is now demonstrably a lie intended to cover up the company’s countless unethical actions and practices. The board accomplishes nothing more than allowing Facebook to pretend to hold itself accountable, while remaining entirely opaque and facing no real consequences whatsoever.
Just to recap, here are some of the things Facebook does not want to be held accountable for:
– Playing a role in the attempted coup on January 6th 2021
– Holding indefinite records of user information
– A data breach affecting over 530 million people, which they chose not to notify users about
– Running an exploitative, privacy-opposed business model based on selling personal information to advertisers
– Providing a breeding ground for conspiracy theories, extremism, vitriol, and misinformation
Need we go on?
Right-wing insurrectionism, extremism and disinformation is still running rampant on Facebook, and very little has been put forward to alleviate the severe toxicity of the dialogue taking place on the site. The Trump ban was always a distraction, and banning him permanently was always the absolute bare minimum Facebook could have done.
The crux of the problem is that the board was created for the sole purpose of obfuscating Facebook’s internal failure to regulate its own platform. It is designed to give the appearance of accountability, when in actuality the board is nothing more than an involved public relations campaign.
This decision demonstrates what civil society leaders, academics and experts have been saying for a long time now: social media platforms and technology companies can not effectively self-regulate. The only solution is democratically accountable oversight that takes on the business model and the algorithms that are wreaking havoc on democratic society.
Any regulation that Facebook willingly undergoes by itself will never challenge their inherently unethical and democracy-threatening business model.
The O.B. also brought up the importance of “freedom of expression”, when referring to Donald Trump’s online rhetoric. This isn’t a question of free speech, it’s a question of free reach. Trump does not have the state-ordained right to espouse fictitious, anti-democratic, violent messages to hundreds of millions of people. Nobody has an inherent right to spread hate and lies on Facebook, whatever their position in society.
The idea of freedom of expression long predates the existence of billion dollar social media platforms that reverberate individual voices around the world. These platforms’ tremendous reach makes them immensely powerful, and the possibility of Trump’s reinstatement on Facebook 6 months from now sends a symbolic “go-ahead” message to nationalist strongmen such as Viktor Orbán, Jair Bolsonaro, Rodrigo Duterte, and others.
Ultimately, Facebook can not be the decision-maker regarding how these powerful platforms should and should not be used; that kind of decision has implications far beyond their scope as a for-profit business. We wouldn’t allow an oil company to let a board they appointed decide whether they should clean up an oil spill and we shouldn’t allow a tech company’s self-appointed board to decide what’s allowed on social media.
We’ve dealt with the repercussions of Facebook’s ineptitude and greed for far too long. Enough is enough. We can not accept this non-decision as a victory. It’s time to act.