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Facebook is pretending it cares how its platform affects the world

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<span>Photograph: Olivier Douliery/AFP/Getty Images</span>
Photograph: Olivier Douliery/AFP/Getty Images

The world is a lot better off without Donald Trump as president of the United States. And Facebook is a lot more peaceful without Trump’s unhinged calls for vengeance against his political opponents and fabricated tales of voter fraud echoing across the platform. What’s more, the world is a lot better off now that Trump can’t use Facebook to execute his plans.

The Facebook Oversight Board, a company-selected team of free speech experts, ruled on Wednesday that while, based on Trump’s statements, the company was justified in banning Trump for some period of time, doing so indefinitely meant the company was treating Trump differently than it does other users and other world leaders. The board kicked the decision back to Facebook, meaning that this saga is far from over.

“In applying a vague, standardless penalty and then referring this case to the board to resolve, Facebook seeks to avoid its responsibilities,” the 20-member board ruled. “The board declines Facebook’s request and insists that Facebook apply and justify a defined penalty.” The board then demanded that Facebook come up with a clearer and more fair penalty within six months.

Related: The inside story of how we reached the Facebook-Trump verdict | Alan Rusbridger

The board deliberated for four months after Facebook itself appealed its own January ban of Trump. Trump had praised and encouraged the invasion of the US Capitol building on 6 January when five people died in the violence, in what was a clear assault not only on the process of legitimately selecting Trump’s successor but on American democracy itself.

In doing so, the board not only came to the most obvious short-term decision, it exposed the limits of its utility. Instead of considering more important questions about the role Facebook plays in politics and political violence around the world, or about how Facebook amplifies some messages and stifles others, or – crucially, in the case of Trump – how a political figure or party exploits Facebook’s features to degrade democracy or exact violence, the board took on the narrowest of questions: the regulation of particular expressions.

The decision to ban Trump and his pages in January was a significant reversal of company policy. For years Facebook had treated Trump gingerly, scared of blowback from Republican legislators and the Trump administration itself. Mark Zuckerberg, the company’s CEO, had also for years extolled the platform’s alleged neutrality when it came to controversial speech, going so far, at one point, as to defend the policy of letting Holocaust deniers promote their expressions on Facebook. Clearly Facebook executives considered not only the gravity of the assaults of 6 January, but the fact that Trump would only be president for three more weeks and that Republicans had lost control of the US Senate. It was a safe and almost obvious decision to quiet Trump.

The Oversight Board content director, Eli Sugarman, stated on Twitter that the indefinite penalty, issued without standards by which Trump could correct his behavior and restore his status, was quite different from how Facebook handled misinformation about Covid-19 in March from the Venezuelan president, Nicolás Maduro. Facebook froze Maduro’s page for 30 days and then left it up as “read-only,” limiting posting.

“This penalty is novel and smacks of political expediency,” Sugarman wrote about the indefinite banning of Trump, compared to the limited penalty on Maduro.

The problem is, Trump is almost novel – or at least he is among a select class of want-to-be tyrants capable of stoking massive violence and undermining democracy with years of corrosive messages. Maduro is no Trump. Comparing the reach and influence of Maduro to Trump makes no sense. And perhaps Facebook made a mistake by making Maduro’s penalty too short and light.

India is Facebook&#x002019;s largest market and Narendra Modi is close to Mark Zuckerberg.
India is Facebook’s largest market and Narendra Modi is close to Mark Zuckerberg. Photograph: Getty Images

Trump’s strategy of fully leveraging Facebook for propaganda, fundraising, organization, and stoking violence against opponents was mastered in 2015 by the leader of the Bharatiya Janata party in India, the current prime minister, Narendra Modi. It was repeated in early 2016 by Rodrigo Duterte in the Philippines and Jair Bolsonaro used it in Brazil. Modi, Duterte and Bolsonaro are still active on Facebook, Instagram and WhatsApp. The board has no power to insist that Facebook now treat those leaders like they did Trump. The board may only rule on accounts and content that Facebook decided to ban.

Most significantly, the board did not consider the macro effect of Trump on Facebook, on the US, or on democracy. The board is not designed to. The board framed this question as one of expression, as if expression is the only consideration for a company like Facebook. The board was meant to ignore the ways Facebook actually works in the world and the ways some of its most influential users actually use Facebook.

The reality is that Trump used Facebook most effectively as an organizing and fundraising tool. Trump’s entire political organization depended on Facebook from the start. Through Facebook, Trump built a fundraising base, recruited volunteers, filled his rallies with supporters and targeted advertisements to small slices of potential voters. Facebook is how Trump prevailed in 2016. Only the fact that Trump failed spectacularly as president to keep the US healthy and prosperous kept him from being re-elected in 2020.

Even though he is no longer president and may not ever run for office again, Trump has the means and motivation to expand his political machine. Perhaps it would be to maintain his influence in the Republican party. Perhaps it would support some of his children or their spouses in their political campaigns to come.

We should not expect consistency from Facebook going forward ... Ultimately, Facebook is too big and too complicated

The Oversight Board is committed to rule-based deliberation. It seeks consistency and predictability from Facebook. But Facebook is facing a series of unique challenges, very few of which are like the others. Rule-based deliberation forces the board to imagine that world leaders are somehow the same or even in the same situations. It also assumes that language works the same way in different contexts. Overall, it makes the board focus on the micro – the expression itself – not on the macro effects over time of a leader’s full activity on Facebook.

Even comparing Modi, who has been pressuring Facebook to scrub criticisms of his government from the platform, to Trump, who has not and cannot, has its limitations. Facebook has so far failed to take Modi seriously as a threat to the lives and health of both people and democracy. But then again, India is Facebook’s largest market and Modi is close to both Zuckerberg and the COO, Sheryl Sandberg.

We should not expect consistency from Facebook going forward. We should not even demand it. Ultimately, Facebook is too big and too complicated. And so is the real world. Any attempt to change Facebook for the better to bolster the fate of democracy must come with a full acknowledgment that whether one account is up or down or one post is deleted or not does not matter that much. The Oversight Board is a weak attempt by Facebook to look as if it takes seriously its effects on the world. We should not give it that much credit.

  • Siva Vaidhyanathan is a professor of media studies at the University of Virginia and the author of Antisocial Media: How Facebook Disconnects Us and Undermines Democracy

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