Oversight Board decision on Trump will raise more questions than answers
Facebook’s Oversight Board is set to decide whether or not former President Donald Trump should be let back on the platform after he was suspended in January. On April 16, the board announced that it needed more time to review the more than 9,000 public comments on the matter. While there is intense interest in Trump’s fate, the world is also watching for hints about how the company might handle the accounts of other world leaders. Regardless of what the board decides, it will raise more questions than it answers.
Trying to come up with rules that can easily apply to the entire world is tough. There are so many different cultures, laws and norms that it’s nearly impossible to make everyone happy. It gets even more complicated when trying to decide which rules apply to government officials — especially those at the very top.
There are many questions at play when considering the decision by tech companies to suspend Trump following the events of Jan. 6. First is the question of whether what Trump posted on the platforms rose to the level of directly inciting the violence. People were already in the Capitol when Trump posted the tweets that Twitter is citing as violating their policies. This leads to the second question of how much social media companies should take into account what is happening off of their platforms when deciding actions to take on their platforms. Then there is the question of if the policies that he violated were clear and that he knew by posting he might be kicked off the platforms. Finally, there’s the whole question of if it’s right that the power rests solely in the hands of people like Mark Zuckerberg, the CEO of Facebook, or Jack Dorsey, Twitter’s CEO, to make these decisions.
Those are just the questions facing the board for this particular decision. Should they decide to reinstate Trump more questions will surface. Will YouTube, which has already said that it will reinstate the former president at some point, take this as an opportunity to lift their block? Will there be pressure on Twitter to reverse their decision? What happens when Trump inevitably posts something that people think should be removed? Will his account be taken down again and we’ll go through this process all over again? How about fact-checking? Trump has not yet said if he intends to run for president again in 2024, so he is not a candidate or an elected official now. Does that mean his content is eligible to be downgraded and labeled if fact-checked, something his account was not subjected to by Facebook when he was president?
If the board goes the other direction and decides to keep Trump off of Facebook, the questions then turn to how Facebook will handle other elected officials and world leaders. Facebook and other companies will immediately come under pressure from all sides to start removing more people from the platform who they think violate the companies standards.
And this isn’t just a social media problem. This has far-reaching consequences for elections and democracy. What if more candidates from one party are removed? Will Facebook, Twitter or YouTube be seen as tipping the scales in an election because some candidates can use their platform and others cannot? Is it right that companies can make the decisions of which political speech people can see? What happens if companies like Amazon Web Services start to deny more political apps from using their servers? That makes it even harder for those candidates to get their messages to voters. Maybe this is what society wants because it’ll encourage candidates to not violate the companies’ standards. But why should the world be beholden to standards written by corporate CEOs and not democratically elected representatives?
These are not easy questions to answer and not ones we should expect answers for when the Oversight Board issues its ruling. I sincerely hope that the board makes available to the public all of the comments they got in this case. Answers to questions like these will only be answered by a robust public debate between citizens, companies, governments, civil society and the media.
Katie Harbath is a former Facebook executive and current fellow at the Bipartisan Policy Center who is a global leader at the intersection of democracy, elections and civic engagement online.
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