The timing couldn’t have been more perfect: on the same day that Donald Trump launched his long-awaited social media site, Facebook scheduled its own long-awaited announcement on whether it would uphold its suspension of his account following the Capitol Hill riots in January.
Trump’s site, “From The Desk of Donald J Trump”, turned out to be more of a blog – or a Twitter-like platform where only he can post – and was quickly overshadowed by the decision announced by Facebook’s new Oversight Board: an independent body of public figures, including ex-Danish prime minister Helle Thorning-Schmidt and ex-Guardian editor Alan Rusbridger, who serve as a check on Facebook’s content decisions. The conclusion of the board was much like the site’s initial verdict: that the suspension was justified. It added, however, that Facebook needed to review its decision in six months and make a permanent ruling (the initial suspension was indefinite).
“Facebook’s normal penalties include removing the violating content, imposing a time-bound period of suspension, or permanently disabling the page and account,” the Board’s statement read. “The Board insists that Facebook review this matter to determine and justify a proportionate response that is consistent with the rules that are applied to other users of its platform.”
Trump, in turn, responded via his blog: “What Facebook, Twitter, and Google have done is a total disgrace and an embarrassment to our Country. Free Speech has been taken away from the President of the United States… These corrupt social media companies must pay a political price, and must never again be allowed to destroy and decimate our Electoral Process.”
This is one of the first rulings by the Oversight Board, which began work at the end of 2020. Its first decision came in January this year, and most of the cases it has dealt with concern freedom of expression, addressing issues such as incitements of violence and hate speech. The likelihood is that the Oversight Board was built, as my colleague Oscar Williams put it, to “outsource” Facebook’s most difficult editorial decisions – giving the platform an easy way to shirk responsibility for its moderation choices and offering the public a new place to direct their criticisms.
Obvious questions spring to mind. Why not just decide now? Why, specifically, wait six months? What is the point of an independent board if it simply puts the decision back into the hands of those who made it in the first place? It’s also worth noting that this decision, while perhaps setting a precedent for the future, is specifically a decision about Trump; a man who has not meaningfully changed in his nearly half a century in the public eye. What more could Facebook learn – could anyone learn – about Trump that would make a difference over the next six months?
The Oversight Board was, in theory, built to avoid situations such as this. It was a clear and direct response to the indecision of platforms paralysed by fear of the backlash they might receive. It was also built to assuage concerns over a small handful of companies determining what speech is permissible online. And while it would have been naive to think any independent body could dramatically change the way a company such as Facebook operates, it seems that the Board has neglected to use any of its power.
We should also remember just how useless indecision like this has already proved to be. While it’s undoubtedly personally offensive to Trump that he should be banned from platforms he once enjoyed near-unbarred access to, it increasingly doesn’t appear to affect how much power he wields. He is, of course, limited by Twitter and Facebook’s bans, but his success doesn’t depend on access to them. Simply by posting on a rudimentary blog, his voice is still getting mainstream coverage (even in this article).
The ruling by Facebook’s Oversight Board merely replicates the site’s existing approach: making half-hearted moderation decisions that please almost no one, while giving the appearance of being decisive and seeking limited negative feedback. The Board has simply kicked the ruling into the long grass, returning authority to Facebook, which may in turn lead to another Board decision. All of which suggests the future of Big Tech regulation will mostly involve more self-moderation for appearance’s sake.