Jan 22, 2021 - Technology

Review of Trump ban marks major turning point for Facebook

Photo illustration of President Trump with a Facebook stylized hand making a hush sign. 

Photo Illustration: Aïda Amer/Axios. Photo: Saul Loeb/AFP via Getty Images

Facebook's decision to ask its new independent Oversight Board to review the company's indefinite suspension of former President Trump is likely to set a critical precedent for how the social media giant handles political speech from world leaders.

What they're saying: "I very much hope and can expect … that they will uphold our decision," Facebook's VP of global affairs Nick Clegg tells Axios.

  • The board has 90 days to determine whether it thinks Facebook did indeed make the right call in suspending the ex-president in the wake of the Capitol siege. Until then, Trump will remain suspended.

Details: Jamal Greene, co-chair of the Oversight Board and a Columbia Law School professor, tells Axios that Facebook has indicated it will heed the board's guidance.

  • Greene says this is the first suspension case the board will be reviewing since it started hearing its first round of cases, all involving content takedowns, in December.
  • For now, only Facebook — and not individual users — can petition the board to review account suspensions.

Between the lines: Aside from the Board's binding decision, Facebook has also asked the board to provide additional guidance on how it should apply its policies toward political leaders' speech going forward.

  • Facebook seems eager to offload the burden of setting groundbreaking precedents onto the board, but its broad policy recommendations aren't binding. And Clegg cautioned that it's too early to say how the company would implement any guidance.
  • "If they have thoughts going forward about how and in what way we should be comporting ourselves in analogous situations in the future, it will be really interesting to hear," Clegg says. "But I am just a bit wary about talking in the abstract on this."

The big picture: The Trump ban has ignited a global conversation around whether private companies should hold so much power over free speech. World leaders from Germany, Mexico, Brazil, Poland and others have expressed concern that the bans set a dangerous precedent.

Our thought bubble: By asking the board for recommendations on how to generally handle inflammatory and false speech from world leaders, Facebook is ensuring it will have at least some ammunition as it faces that global pressure.

  • The board will either deliver a reasoned justification for the company establishing red lines that even world leaders can't cross, or an explanation that Facebook can refer back to for why Trump was a unique case.

Facebook has long argued that it doesn't want to have to make judgment calls about what political leaders should or shouldn't say, which is why it has taken the position not to fact-check their speech. The Capitol siege, however, was a clear indication to the company that Trump had violated its rules against inciting violence.

  • "It was a truly an unprecedented situation in U.S. political history," Clegg said. "We very firmly believe that was the right action to take."

Be smart: Deferring to the board on such a consequential matter would give the fledgling group major legitimacy.

  • Some observers have questioned whether the Oversight Board's $130 million in funding from Facebook means it can truly act independently.
  • Greene says the fact that the board is made up of a group of people who have other jobs and roles in society helps ensure the members will act with true independence. "We're people who have lives in other domains," he says.
  • The board is governed by a group of trustees, not Facebook. "Facebook can't discipline us. They can't fire us. They can't direct the decisions we make," Greene added.

The bottom line: "In an imperfect world, this is what accountability looks like," Clegg argued.

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