The Copia Institute To The Oversight Board Regarding Facebook's Trump Suspension: There Was No Wrong Decision

from the context-driven-coin-flip dept

The following is the Copia Institute's submission to the Oversight Board as it evaluates Facebook's decision to remove some of Trump's posts and his ability to post. While addressed to the Board, it's written for everyone thinking about how platforms moderate content.

The Copia Institute has advocated for social media platforms to permit the greatest amount of speech possible, even when that speech is unpopular. At the same time, we have also defended the right of social media platforms to exercise editorial and associative discretion about the user expression it permits on its services. This case illustrates why we have done both. We therefore take no position on whether Facebook's decision to remove former-President Trump's posts and disable his ability to make further posts was the right decision for Facebook to make because choosing to do so or choosing not to is each defensible. Instead our goal is to explain why.

Reasons to be wary of taking content down. We have long held the view that the reflex to remove online content, even odious content, is generally not a healthy one. Not only can it backfire and lead to the removal of content undeserving of deletion, but it can have the effect of preserving a false monoculture in online expression. Social media is richer and more valuable when it can reflect the full fabric of humanity, even when that means enabling speech that is provocative or threatening to hegemony. Perhaps especially then, because so much important, valid, and necessary speech can so easily be labeled that way. Preserving different ideas, even when controversial, ensures that there will be space for new and even better ones, whereas policing content for compliance with current norms only distorts those norms' development.

Being too willing to remove content also has the effect of teaching the public that when it encounters speech that provokes the way to respond is to demand its suppression. Instead of a marketplace of ideas, this burgeoning tendency means that discourse becomes a battlefield, where the view that will prevail is the one that can amass enough censorial pressure to remove its opponent—even if it's the view with the most merit. The more Facebook feeds this unfortunate instinct by removing user speech, the more vulnerable it will be to further pressure demanding still more removals, even when it may be of speech society would benefit from. The reality is that there will always be disagreements over the worth of certain speech. As long as Facebook assumes the role of an arbitrator, it will always find itself in the middle of an unwinnable tug-of-war between conflicting views. To break this cycle, removals should be made with reluctance and only limited, specific, identifiable, and objective criteria to justify the exception. It may be hard to employ them consistently at scale, but more restraint will in the long run mean less error.

Reasons to be wary of leaving content up. The unique challenge presented in this case is that the Facebook user at the time of the posts in question was the President of the United States. This fact cuts in multiple ways: as the holder of the highest political office in the country Trump's speech was of particular relevance to the public, and thus particularly worth facilitating. After all, even if Trump's posts were debauched, these were the views of the President, and it would not have served the public for him to be of this character and the public not to know.

On the other hand, as the then-President of the United States his words had greater impact than any other user's. They could do, and did, more harm, thanks to the weight of authority they acquired from the imprimatur of his office. And those real-world effects provided a perfectly legitimate basis for Facebook to take steps to (a) mitigate that damage by removing posts and (b) end the association that had allowed him to leverage Facebook for those destructive ends.

If Facebook concludes that anyone's use of its services is not in its interests, the interests of its user community, or the interests of the wider world Facebook and its users inhabit, it can absolutely decide to refuse that user continued access. And it can reach that conclusion based on wider context, beyond platform use. Facebook could for instance deny a confessed serial killer who only uses Facebook to publish poetry access to its service if it felt that the association ultimately served to enable the bad actor's bad acts. As with speech removals, such decisions should be made with reluctance and based on limited, specific, identifiable, and objective criteria, given the impact of such terminations. Just as continued access to Facebook may be unduly empowering for users, denying it can be equally disempowering. But in the case of Trump, as President he did not need Facebook to communicate to the public. He had access to other channels and Facebook no obligation to be conscripted to enable his mischief. Facebook has no obligation to enable anyone's mischief, whether they are a political leader or otherwise.

Potential middle-grounds. When it comes to deciding whether to continue to provide Facebook's services to users and their expression, there is a certain amount of baby-splitting that can be done in response to the sorts of challenges raised by this case. For instance, Facebook does more than simply host speech that can be read by others; it provides tools for engagement such as comments and sharing and amplification through privileged display, and in some instances allows monetization. Withdrawing any or all of these additional user benefits is a viable option that may go a long way toward minimizing the problems of continuing to host problematic speech or a problematic user without the platform needing to resort to removing either entirely.

Conclusion. Whether removing Trump's posts and further posting ability was the right decision or not depends on what sort of service Facebook wants to be and which choice it believes it best serves that purpose. Facebook can make these decisions any way it wants, but to minimize public criticism and maximize public cooperation how it makes them is what matters. These decisions should be transparent to the user community, scalable to apply to future situations, and predictable in how they would, to the extent they can be, since circumstances and judgment will inevitably evolve. Every choice will have consequences, some good and some bad. The choice for Facebook is really to affirmatively choose which ones it wants to favor. There may not be any one right answer, or even any truly right answer. In fact, in the end the best decision may have little to do with the actual choice that results but rather the process used to get there.

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Filed Under: appeals, content moderation, donald trump, facebook supreme court, free speech, oversight, review
Companies: facebook, oversight board


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  • icon
    That One Guy (profile), 12 Feb 2021 @ 12:15pm

    'Sure I'm violating your rules, but I've got power so too bad.'

    Ultimately I'd say they were right(if long overdue) to bring the hammer down and show him the door, and it's in the best interest of Facebook, it's users, and social platforms in general if that particular door stays locked to him, as otherwise they'll have said louder than words that the rules are entirely optional so long as you have enough power and if they can't see how that can and will come back to bite them then they aren't looking hard enough.

    Nothing emboldens an asshole like knowing that they can do and say whatever they want without consequence which is why it's so vital that those consequences be handed out and stuck with unless you like for those sorts of people and behavior to flourish and grow.

    reply to this | link to this | view in chronology ]

  • identicon
    Baron von Robber, 12 Feb 2021 @ 12:48pm

    Kind of shows how FB bent over backwards to favor Trump when it took a deadly incitement of insurrection to finally kick him off.

    reply to this | link to this | view in chronology ]

  • This comment has been flagged by the community. Click here to show it
    identicon
    Anonymous Coward, 12 Feb 2021 @ 3:30pm

    I'll take why Section 230 is under attack for $1000

    Points to Copia's B.S.

    You want to be a platform or a publisher? Can't be both.

    And no, Trump did not "incite the violence". The violence started while he was still speaking to a crowd and it's been since discovered that some of the people who were part of the crowd who stormed the building didn't even vote and the ones instigating the problems were part of BLM and Antifa.

    Even the New York Times pointed that out.

    But I know facts don't matter to fascists.

    Can't believe that I thought this blog was worth a damn at one point.

    reply to this | link to this | view in chronology ]

    • icon
      Samuel Abram (profile), 12 Feb 2021 @ 4:28pm

      Re: I'll take why Section 230 is under attack for $1000

      But I know facts don't matter to fascists.

      This is the only true factual think you said out of that bilious diatribe.

      reply to this | link to this | view in chronology ]

      • identicon
        Anonymous Coward, 12 Feb 2021 @ 4:39pm

        Re: Re: I'll take why Section 230 is under attack for $1000

        Just don't feed the trolls. Flag them and move on.

        reply to this | link to this | view in chronology ]

        • identicon
          Anonymous Coward, 24 Feb 2021 @ 9:52am

          Re: Re: Re: I'll take why Section 230 is under attack for $1000

          "Troll" on Techdirt is anyone who isn't in complete lockstep with Masnick's worldview.

          "Flag them (so we don't have to ever come into contact with any opinion that makes us uncomfortable because it even slightly contradicts Masnick's worldview.)"

          reply to this | link to this | view in chronology ]

    • icon
      Stephen T. Stone (profile), 12 Feb 2021 @ 4:45pm

      You want to be a platform or a publisher? Can't be both.

      A California appeals court says otherwise: “Under section 230, interactive computer service providers have broad immunity from liability for traditional editorial functions undertaken by publishers—such as decisions whether to publish, withdraw, postpone or alter content created by third parties. Because each of Murphy’s causes of action seek to hold Twitter liable for its editorial decisions to block content she and others created from appearing on its platform, we conclude Murphy’s suit is barred by the broad immunity conferred by the CDA.”

      Trump did not "incite the violence"

      …if you ignore the fact that he’d been intentionally fomenting anger among his voter base about a stolen election both months before and weeks after the election, intentionally used violent language and imagery (e.g., using “fight” or “fighting” 20 times in his January 6th speech), and allowed fellow speakers at that “Stop the Steal” rally to use similar language (e.g., Rudy Giuliani’s “trial by combat” remark) without condemnation. And that doesn’t even get into his history of violent remarks and other atrocities from the start of his campaign through the end of his first (and hopefully last) term.

      some of the people who were part of the crowd who stormed the building didn't even vote

      So what? Doesn’t mean they weren’t Trump supporters.

      the ones instigating the problems were part of BLM and Antifa

      Please make your lies more plausible in the future. The first group of people to go through the windows/doors of the Capitol had Trump paraphenalia in their possession — including a Trump flag. (Video proves that assertion true, by the way.) And so far as I’ve heard, none of the people arrested for their role in the insurrection had any tangible/viable connections to either the Movement for Black Lives, the Black Lives Matter organization, or any antifascist group.

      I know facts don't matter to fascists.

      Exhibit A: Donald Trump’s Big Lie.

      Can't believe that I thought this blog was worth a damn at one point.

      Nobody’s forcing you to stay here and read something you hate, champ. Door’s to your left.

      reply to this | link to this | view in chronology ]

      • icon
        That One Guy (profile), 12 Feb 2021 @ 7:10pm

        Re:

        Please make your lies more plausible in the future. The first group of people to go through the windows/doors of the Capitol had Trump paraphenalia in their possession — including a Trump flag. (Video proves that assertion true, by the way.) And so far as I’ve heard, none of the people arrested for their role in the insurrection had any tangible/viable connections to either the Movement for Black Lives, the Black Lives Matter organization, or any antifascist group.

        I can't help but think of the two flat-earth GAM episodes I've listened to any time I hear that particular bit of bullshit, specifically with regards to how the flat-earthers apparently have a tendency to turn on their own at the drop of a hat and declare not just that they're not True Believers but that they were never True Believer and were always on The Man's payroll.

        Trump riled up his cultists with months of lies and conspiracy theories about how the election had been 'stolen' from him and his cult and set them upon the capitol and after they failed their little insurrection(getting several people killed in the process) magically it was all suddenly the fault of the big bad BLM/Antifa boogieman, whether that be because they somehow tricked the super-duper smart Trump cultists into doing their dirty work or because BLM/Antifa actors themselves were merely pretending to be Trump cultists so successfully that they had everyone fooled until it was too late.

        Bad enough to deny reality to such an extent, but doing so in a manner that requires them to portray themselves as easily manipulated fools and their enemies as masterful plotters and puppetmasters is certainly an odd tactic.

        reply to this | link to this | view in chronology ]

    • icon
      Toom1275 (profile), 12 Feb 2021 @ 8:58pm

      Re: I'll take why Section 230 is under attack for $1000

      But I know facts don't matter to fascists.

      Is that why you hate them so much?

      reply to this | link to this | view in chronology ]

    • icon
      Bloof (profile), 13 Feb 2021 @ 2:21am

      Re: I'll take why Section 230 is under attack for $1000

      BLM/antifa are so cunning they spent years infiltrating groups like the proud boys and oathkeepers and supporting Trump and his brand of racism for years on end, even living entire lives as real estate agents in Texas to throw people off their trail. They're so cunning they tricked right wing groups like TPUSA bussing them in and bragging about it on social media. They were so clever, they managed to trick people from Infowars and The Blaze to be at the heart of the mob, actively participating in things and livestreaming without getting caught on camera doing anything. They did such a good job at covering their tracks they managed to be part of organising on Parler without giving away location and other personal information, unlike all their other users. After the riot, they managed to slip away into the night without arrests, almost like they were never there at all except in the minds of people trying to excuse right wing violence, the same top minds who invent drug overdoses as the cause of deaths at the hands of police, or claim people hit by cars died of heart attacks... Anything is better than the truth.

      reply to this | link to this | view in chronology ]

    • icon
      techflaws (profile), 14 Feb 2021 @ 8:18am

      Re: I'll take why Section 230 is under attack for $1000

      And no, Trump did not "incite the violence".

      Right, the liar/whiner-in-chief promised the moronic masses to march with them on the capitol and chickened out as usual. Probably due to bone spurs or some ramp.

      reply to this | link to this | view in chronology ]

    • identicon
      Anonymous Coward, 16 Feb 2021 @ 4:49pm

      Re: I'll take why Section 230 is under attack for $1000

      “Do you want to be a platform or a publisher you can’t be both”

      There’s no point in fighting when you are just trying to beat something that is just dodging every move lol

      reply to this | link to this | view in chronology ]

    • icon
      Scary Devil Monastery (profile), 17 Feb 2021 @ 5:19am

      Re: I'll take why Section 230 is under attack for $1000

      "...and the ones instigating the problems were part of BLM and Antifa."

      Wow. The ones instigating the violence, were BLM and Antifa? Who had apparently spent tenty years or more being frontrunning Proud Boys, alt-right podcasters, or extreme right-wing militia leaders?

      I'm not sure which is worse with you alt-right assholes. The very ideals of hatred and supremacy you cling to, or the equally speedy response of whining "It wasn't us!" every time you get caught redhanded.

      The whole lot of you seem to be nothing more than a bunch of entitled man-children made of cowardice and malice and only brave enough to speak your piece when you're standing in a large crowd of like-minded malicious cowards.

      reply to this | link to this | view in chronology ]

  • identicon
    Anonymous Coward, 13 Feb 2021 @ 6:16am

    While I agree with pretty much everything in this article on principle, the practice is often wildly different.

    Facebook et al can afford to give loads of care and attention to Trump's case. But the common public tend to be moderated reflexively and even automatically. Even to the point where it may be necessary to talk about controversial topics in roundabout euphemisms to avoid tripping some word detection algorithm.

    It's the pinnacle of hypocrisy when politicians the world round who have spent years demanding and even legislating the banning of "hate speech" on social media suddenly became "concerned" the moment it's someone important on the receiving end of the banhammer. Doesn't stop them from continuing to demand the banning of others, of course.

    reply to this | link to this | view in chronology ]


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