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Five things to watch in Facebook Oversight Board ruling on Trump

Five things to watch in Facebook Oversight Board ruling on Trump
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Facebook’s Oversight Board will rule Wednesday morning on whether to uphold or reverse a ban on former President TrumpDonald TrumpVeteran accused in alleged border wall scheme faces new charges Arizona Republicans to brush off DOJ concern about election audit FEC drops investigation into Trump hush money payments MORE’s account on the platform.

It’s by far the most high-profile case to come before the collection of academics, former politicians and journalists who make up the ostensibly independent organization.

Facebook’s critics have warned against reinstating Trump over his repeated violations of the platform’s policies — beyond his posts about the Capitol insurrection that the review is centered on.

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But Republicans have widely slammed Trump’s suspension, often citing it when making unsubstantiated claims that social media companies consistently remove conservative viewpoints.

The board’s decision could have huge effects beyond whether Trump is allowed back on the platform.

Here are five things to watch as the board prepares to issue its decision:

 

Who are the decisionmakers?

The Oversight Board currently has about 20 members worldwide from a variety of backgrounds in academia, law, journalism and advocacy.

The board is funded through a $130 million trust from Facebook to cover the operational costs but has its own staff independent from the social media giant.

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The board oversees cases about Facebook’s content decisions that have been appealed by users or, as in the case with Trump, by Facebook itself.

Once a case is selected, a panel of board members is assigned to it. For the Trump review, the board said it received more than 9,000 public comments.

Typically, the board takes roughly 90 days to make a decision, but Facebook extended the time frame on the Trump decision.

Facebook critics have slammed the process, in part because of the drawn-out timeline.

“This oversight board is not providing a proper mechanism to respond to the challenges of the day, even though there’s some really brilliant people on there,” said Jessica González, the CEO of the advocacy group Free Press and a member of the Real Oversight Board, a collection of critics.

“In fact, by design, it can’t, because Facebook needs to move at a faster clip than that. Facebook needs to take accountability,” she added.

 

What’s at stake for Trump?

Trump was a frequent user of social media, even before his 2016 campaign. Upon taking office in 2017, he regularly used platforms like Twitter to whip up supporters and announce major staffing and policy decisions.

But in the wake of the Jan. 6 insurrection, Trump has been limited to emailing out press releases and hoping they get shared widely, since Facebook was not the only social media site to ban him in the aftermath of the Capitol insurrection.

Twitter, which Trump used more than any other platform, permanently deplatformed him and has reiterated that its decision is final.

That raises the stakes of the Facebook Oversight Board’s forthcoming decision, especially since any restoration of his account could serve as justification for other platforms to follow suit.

YouTube, for example, has said it plans to restore Trump’s account once the company determines that the “risk of violence has decreased.” A favorable ruling Wednesday could soften the backlash to allowing him back on.

TikTok removed videos of Trump speaking to supporters after Jan. 6 but could change that policy moving forward. Twitch suspended the former president’s account “indefinitely,” leaving the door open to his eventual reinstatement.

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Still, if the oversight board reaffirms Trump’s ban from Facebook it could harden the resolve of other platforms to keep him off theirs.

Some experts doubt whether Trump really needs to get back on social media to reach his target audience.

“Trump never had a real interest in speaking to the middle of America, in the sense of those who are wavering. He spoke to his base. He can still do that. He still does that. He does that with email, he does that with official announcements that the news covers. So for him not being on Facebook I think he sort of got used to it, it’s not the biggest thing,” said Scott Talan, an assistant professor at American University’s School of Communication.

 

What are the potential reactions from Washington?

Lawmakers on both sides of the aisle have been critical of the content moderation policies on social media, albeit for largely different reasons.

Republicans have centered calls to reform Section 230, part of a 1996 law that provides tech companies legal liability protections for content posted by third parties, around accusations that tech companies are censoring content from conservatives.

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House Republicans on the Energy and Commerce Committee last month circulated a memo on proposals targeting Big Tech that highlighted Trump’s bans.

“In a country where we cherish free speech, it should alarm every American — Democrat and Republican alike — to see Big Tech ban the Leader of the Free World with no accountability,” the memo stated.

Democrats have been just as critical of content moderation policies, accusing Facebook and other tech giants of not taking enough action against hate speech and misinformation.

Trump’s critics in Congress might use a potential reversal of his suspension as reason to further press the companies over how they enforce their policies.

 

Will the decision significantly impact Facebook’s revenue?

The decision may end up having little to no impact on Facebook’s revenue or average users.

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Despite conservative backlash over Facebook’s suspension of Trump’s account, the platform beat Wall Street revenue expectations in the first quarter of the year.

Facebook last week reported total revenue of $26.2 billion, a 48 percent increase from the same three-month period the year before, in the first quarter. The platform also reported monthly active users were 2.85 billion as of the end of March, an increase of 10 percent from 2020.

Angelo Carusone, president and CEO of left-leaning media watchdog Media Matters for America, dismissed threats to Facebook’s revenue if the Trump ban is maintained.

“It would require a real concerted effort, I think on the part of advertisers, in order for there to be a meaningful effect on the platform,” he said.

But a reversal could make retaining talent harder, Carusone argued.

“If I’m an engineer at Facebook, I could be an engineer at Google, I could be an engineer at a startup. I don’t need to be an engineer at Facebook,” he said. “If it’s embarrassing and awful to be viewed as a Facebook employee, then that’s where they’re really going to start to suffer the most, is actually in that talent fight.”

 

Will the ruling set a precedent for other world leaders?

Facebook said it welcomed “observations or recommendations from the board” about suspensions of other political leaders when it referred Trump’s case.

How the board crafts its response to the case could impact how Facebook handles future cases that involve other world leaders.

Unlike the binding rulings on content removal, Facebook has not committed to implementing all recommendations from the board. It has, however, in the past updated policies based on board recommendations.

When the board announced its first set of rulings in January it included 17 recommendations for Facebook to implement. The same day Facebook committed to take action on 11 of the 17 recommendations and said it would assess the feasibility of five others.

Critics say Facebook should enforce its rules equally across the platform, without giving political leaders any pass on content moderation.

“If they had a consistent enforcement mechanism, we wouldn’t really be having this conversation,” Carusone said. “We’re in this place because they basically never enforced their own rules against this one account.”