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30 June 2021

Helle Thorning-Schmidt: “Social media has benefited the global conversation”

The former Danish prime minister and co-chair of the Facebook Oversight Board on whether she can hold the social media giant to account.   

By Oscar Williams

In September 2019, the former Danish prime minister Helle Thorning-Schmidt flew to California to visit Facebook’s global headquarters in Menlo Park. The embattled social media giant’s executives were drawing up plans for a new committee to review their most contentious content-moderation decisions, and they wanted Thorning-Schmidt to help lead it.

The creation of the Oversight Board was overseen by Nick Clegg, Facebook’s communications chief, who has known Thorning-Schmidt since they were students at the College of Europe in Belgium in the early 1990s. But despite her long-standing connection to the former UK deputy prime minister, Thorning-Schmidt said she was initially concerned that the board might be a marketing exercise.

“I guess you always have that worry with a company like Facebook,” Thorning-Schmidt, 54, told me via Zoom from her home in London. “That’s why I went quite deep into […] our true independence.”

In the weeks after Facebook’s initial approach, Thorning-Schmidt scrutinised the terms of the board’s existence. Facebook clarified to her that it wouldn’t be required to implement recommendations but that it would need to explain why it refused to do so. Thorning-Schmidt also secured assurances that the company wouldn’t be able to dismiss committee members.

Nevertheless, many of Facebook’s critics argue that a committee funded by the company cannot be independent, even if members’ compensation is managed by trustees. Thorning-Schmidt refused to say how much she earns for her work, but salaries are rumoured to be as high as $150,000 a year in exchange for relatively little work each month. And while Facebook cannot dismiss members, in Thorning-Schmidt it has chosen a co-chair with close connections to Clegg, one of its executives. (In a further link to British politics, she has been married to the Labour MP Stephen Kinnock since 1996.)

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Some argue that in order to guarantee their independence, such committees should instead be managed by national governments. “I have to say very clearly that I disagree with that,” said Thorning Schmidt, who was Danish prime minister from 2011 to 2015 (having led the Social Democrats from 2005 onwards). “I know so many governments who would be more than eager to moderate content on social media platforms.”

However, Facebook already routinely removes content at governments’ discretion; countries considered to have less internet freedom typically make the most requests for content removal.

[see also: After U-turning in Australia, Facebook faces bigger battles elsewhere]

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In January, the company indefinitely suspended Donald Trump’s Facebook and Instagram accounts after he was accused of inciting the storming of the US Capitol by far-right protesters. Shortly afterwards, the company referred the decision to its Oversight Board. Four months later, Thorning-Schmidt’s committee concluded that Facebook had the right to suspend the account, but not indefinitely – such a penalty had been created specifically for Trump and didn’t apply to other users. Facebook, the board said, would have to choose a sanction within its existing penalty regime.

In the days before I spoke with Thorning-Schmidt, Facebook handed Trump a two-year suspension, meaning the former president will be permitted to return to the site in time for the 2024 US presidential election. “We are happy that they have now imposed a time-bound sanction, which is exactly what we asked for,” she said.

This move, however, will do little to reassure those who are concerned that the committee acts as a distraction from more fundamental criticisms of Facebook: namely, that the $966bn company is too large. Thorning-Schmidt appears unconvinced that it is. “I have still not heard an argument that breaking up companies will make it easier to find the right balance between free speech, and other human rights. So there might be other reasons to break up the company but as far as I can see, content moderation is not one of them.

“If we imagine that Russia had its own social media companies, as China already does, and if India had the same, how would that benefit the global community in terms of getting the right balance between free speech and other human rights?”

In a recent interview, Clegg made the same argument. And this is not the only instance where Thorning-Schmidt is aligned to the company’s executives. Asked whether Facebook is a force for good, she warned social media could connect people to harmful and hateful content, but also credited it with powering the Black Lives Matter and #MeToo movements.

“[It would] be very hard to have those kinds of movements and that agency without social media,” she said, in remarks resembling those made by Facebook’s chief operating officer Sheryl Sandberg. “If you were to ask me whether I would like to rewind social media and for it to not happen, I think the balance is definitely that social media has benefited the global conversation, and thereby also democracy in many, many countries.”

The Oversight Board might provide some scrutiny of Facebook’s decision-making. But on the most urgent questions facing the company today, Thorning-Schmidt, Zuckerberg, Sandberg and Clegg stand united.