The Oversight Board's Decision On Facebook's Trump Ban Is Just Not That Important

from the undue-ado dept

Today is Facebook Oversight Board Hysteria Day, because today is the day that the Facebook Oversight Board has rendered its decision about Facebook's suspension of Donald Trump. And it has met the moment with an appropriately dull decision, dripping in pedantic reasonableness, that is largely consistent with our Copia Institute recommendation.

If you remember, we were hesitant about submitting a comment at all. And the reaction to the Board's decision bears out why. People keep reacting as though it is some big, monumental, important decision, when, in actual fact, it isn't at all. In the big scheme of things, it's still just a private company being advised by its private advisory board on how to run its business, nothing more. As it is, Trump himself is still on the Internet – it's not like Facebook actually had the power to silence him. We need to be worried about when there actually is power to silence people, and undue concern about Facebook's moderation practices only distracts us from them. Or, worse, leads people to try to create actual law that will end up having the effect of giving others the legal power to suppress expressive freedom.

So our pride here is necessarily muted, because ultimately this decision just isn't that big a deal. Still, as a purely internal advisory decision, one intended to help the company act more consistently in the interests of its potential user base, it does seem to be a good one given how it hews to our key points.

First, we made the observation that then-President Trump's use of his Facebook account threatened real, imminent harm. We did, however, emphasize the point that it was generally better to try not to delete speech (or speakers). Nevertheless, sometimes it might need to be done, and in those cases it should be done "with reluctance and only limited, specific, identifiable, and objective criteria to justify the exception." There might not ultimately be a single correct decision, we wrote, for whether speech should be left up or taken down. "[I]n the end the best decision may have little to do with the actual choice that results but rather the process used to get there."

And this sort of reasoning is basically at the heart of the Board's decision: Trump's posts were serious enough to justify a sanction, including a suspension, but imposing the indefinite suspension appeared to be unacceptably arbitrary. Per the Board, Facebook needs to make these sorts of decisions consistently and transparently from here on out.

On January 6, Facebook’s decision to impose restrictions on Mr. Trump’s accounts was justified. The posts in question violated the rules of Facebook and Instagram that prohibit support or praise of violating events, including the riot that was then underway at the U.S. Capitol. Given the seriousness of the violations and the ongoing risk of violence, Facebook was justified in imposing account-level restrictions and extending those restrictions on January 7. However, it was not appropriate for Facebook to impose an indefinite suspension. Facebook did not follow a clear published procedure in this case. Facebook’s normal account-level penalties for violations of its rules are to impose either a time-limited suspension or to permanently disable the user’s account. The Board finds that it is not permissible for Facebook to keep a user off the platform for an undefined period, with no criteria for when or whether the account will be restored.

The Board has given Facebook six months to re-evaluate the suspension in accordance with clear rules.

If Facebook determines that Mr. Trump’s accounts should be restored, Facebook should apply its rules to that decision, including any modifications made pursuant to the policy recommendations below. Also, if Facebook determines to return him to the platform, it must address any further violations promptly and in accordance with its established content policies.

As for what those rules should be, the Board also made a few recommendations. First, it noted that "political leader" versus "influential user" is not always a meaningful distinction. Indeed, we had noted that Trump's position cut both ways: as a political leader, there was public benefit to knowing what he had to say. On the other hand, that position also gave his posts greater ability to do harm. The Board for its part noted that context will matter; while the rules should ideally be the same for everyone, since the impact won't be, it is ok for Facebook to take into account the specific probability of imminent harm in making its decisions.

The Board believes that it is not always useful to draw a firm distinction between political leaders and other influential users. It is important to recognize that other users with large audiences can also contribute to serious risks of harm. The same rules should apply to all users of the platform; but context matters when assessing issues of causality and the probability and imminence of harm. What is important is the degree of influence that a user has over other users.

In general, the Board cited to general principles of human rights law, and specifically the Rabat Plan of Action "to assess the capacity of speech to create a serious risk of inciting discrimination, violence, or other lawless action." As for how long suspensions should generally last, they should be long enough to "deter misconduct and may, in appropriate cases, include account or page deletion." Facebook is therefore free to re-impose Trump's suspension as it re-evaluates it, if it feels it remains warranted. It just needs to do so in a more transparent way that would be scalable to other similar situations. As it summarized:

Facebook should publicly explain the rules that it uses when it imposes account-level sanctions against influential users. These rules should ensure that when Facebook imposes a time-limited suspension on the account of an influential user to reduce the risk of significant harm, it will assess whether the risk has receded before the suspension ends. If Facebook identifies that the user poses a serious risk of inciting imminent violence, discrimination or other lawless action at that time, another time-bound suspension should be imposed when such measures are necessary to protect public safety and proportionate to the risk. The Board noted that heads of state and other high officials of government can have a greater power to cause harm than other people. If a head of state or high government official has repeatedly posted messages that pose a risk of harm under international human rights norms, Facebook should suspend the account for a period sufficient to protect against imminent harm. Suspension periods should be long enough to deter misconduct and may, in appropriate cases, include account or page deletion.

As we suggested in our comment, the right policy choices for Facebook to make boil down to the ones that best make Facebook the community it wants to be. At its core, that's what the Board's decision is intended to help with: point out where it appears Facebook has fallen short of its own espoused ideals, and help it get back on track in the future.

Which is, overall, a good thing. It just isn't, as so many critics keep complaining, everything. The Internet is far more than just Facebook, no matter what Trump or his friends think. And there are far more important things for those of us who care about preserving online expression to give our attention to than this.

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Filed Under: appeals, donald trump, permanent suspension, policies, rules, suspension
Companies: facebook, oversight board


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  • icon
    Stephen T. Stone (profile), 5 May 2021 @ 11:06am

    The Internet is far more than just Facebook, no matter what Trump or his friends think.

    Old 45 himself proved it by setting up his own blog, which he was free to do at any point before or after his bans from every social media service worth a good god’s damn. No one can argue — reasonably and factually, anyway — that Facebook stifled his speech. They can only argue that Facebook deprived him of an audience…to which he isn’t legally entitled.

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

  • identicon
    Jamie, 5 May 2021 @ 12:17pm

    The big deal would have been him essentially forcing FB to allow him back on.

    It was a power struggle that would have been seen as "winning", enforcing his will on an entity that his followers believe slighted him.

    It is all monkey dominance games. And you're right that it was bullshit small-ball in terms of mechanical effect, but not in terms of monkey dominance games.

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

    • icon
      nasch (profile), 7 May 2021 @ 7:20am

      Re:

      And you're right that it was bullshit small-ball in terms of mechanical effect

      It might be a lot more important than that. Facebook is much more than just another place to spew toxic nonsense.

      https://www.npr.org/2021/05/06/994063372/why-facebooks-decision-on-trump-could-be-make-or- break-for-his-political-future

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

      • icon
        PaulT (profile), 7 May 2021 @ 7:50am

        Re: Re:

        " Facebook is much more than just another place to spew toxic nonsense."

        Yes, but I doubt that Trump's political campaigns did anything but do that. The article mentions stuff about how much money he raised... I'd like to see a breakdown of how much actually got spent on the campaign. I know for sure it's nowhere near 100%, and I don't think that "Facebook made it easier for a con artist to grift his base" is really a selling point to how it's supposedly invaluable to modern politics.

        Also, the real questions are simply - did Trump deserve to get kicked off Facebook for his actions, and was he given adequate warning before action was taken. I don't see any evidence that the answer to those questions is anything but "yes", and so the problem is still Trump and not Facebook.

        Once again, it seems that the "party of personal responsibility" is desperate to blame others for the consequences of their own actions. Facebook may have become an important marketing tool, but nobody has a right to tools if the supplier doesn't want to do business with them. There are many other tools.

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

        • icon
          nasch (profile), 7 May 2021 @ 11:16am

          Re: Re: Re:

          I don't think that "Facebook made it easier for a con artist to grift his base" is really a selling point to how it's supposedly invaluable to modern politics.

          I think the point is that without Facebook, it may become much harder for Trump to get reelected if he decides to run again. So I hope the ban is permanent.

          Also, the real questions are simply - did Trump deserve to get kicked off Facebook for his actions, and was he given adequate warning before action was taken.

          I don't think those are still questions for any reality based people. The question now is whether the ban should be permanent, or his account should be reinstated at some point.

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

          • icon
            That One Guy (profile), 7 May 2021 @ 2:29pm

            '... Or what, you'll give me another slap on the wrist?'

            I don't think those are still questions for any reality based people. The question now is whether the ban should be permanent, or his account should be reinstated at some point.

            If they have any brains in their collective heads the former without a doubt, as if he is let back on the message sent will be that the only thing he has to worry about is temporary time-outs(and even that will be all but impossible to achieve, given what it took for the rules to be applied to him the first time), and if they thought he was bad before they're really not going to like what he'll be like then.

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

  • identicon
    kallethen, 5 May 2021 @ 12:20pm

    I wish everybody (and I mean everybody) would tell Trump that he's just not that important...

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

  • identicon
    christenson, 5 May 2021 @ 12:37pm

    Articulable, consistent rules...

    That's what FB oversight said...

    Zuck or Dorsey waking up in the morning and liking or disliking Trump or whatever this week won't cut it, and nobody else is in "twilight" -- neither deleted nor in a fixed timeout. It's the rule of men, not the rule of law.

    I personally like the idea of some implicit rules about "monkey dominance games" being part of it.

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

    • icon
      nasch (profile), 7 May 2021 @ 7:21am

      Re: Articulable, consistent rules...

      Zuck or Dorsey waking up in the morning and liking or disliking Trump or whatever this week won't cut it

      Which is of course not what happened.

      It's the rule of men, not the rule of law.

      It's never going to be the rule of law. At most, it will be the rule of a private company's terms of service.

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

      • icon
        PaulT (profile), 7 May 2021 @ 7:54am

        Re: Re: Articulable, consistent rules...

        "Which is of course not what happened."

        It seems to be part of the narrative now. The timing of the bans can't just be that they were all reacting to the same international news story at the same time and applying their relevant policies in the wake of that event. It has to be that the individual CEOs all colluded with each other and nobody else had a say.

        Part of the coping process with certain political types is not to deal with the reality of what really happened and learn lessons from those mistakes, it's to invent a story that makes someone else the bad guy.

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

  • icon
    That Anonymous Coward (profile), 5 May 2021 @ 1:35pm

    Well now that he made his own playground, I highly doubt he'll come back to any platform that lifts his suspensions.
    He discovered that his bullshit has consequences & that he can't bully them into allowing him to keep trying to start another insurrection.
    He now has is own little kingdom where he can say whatever he wants, no one can tell him no, and one can only hope he'll talk himself into charges.

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

    • icon
      That One Guy (profile), 5 May 2021 @ 3:01pm

      Re:

      I suspect he will scramble like mad to jump back on civilized platforms if they're stupid enough to let him back on actually, as he's the sort of person who needs an audience and only a comparatively small number of people are likely to sign up for his cesspit, all of them already his cultists, as opposed to the much larger number who use better platforms who are only likely to hear what he's saying if a cultist cross-posts it from his site.

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

    • icon
      PaulT (profile), 5 May 2021 @ 10:44pm

      Re:

      "Well now that he made his own playground, I highly doubt he'll come back to any platform that lifts his suspensions."

      I disagree. The thing is, even if he gets every one of his cult to use only his platform, it still pales in comparison to the numbers a mainstream platform gets. The man is obsessed with ratings, and he won't be happy until he somehow has the largest audience - and he can't get that without co-opting another platform.

      He'd be back on Facebook or Twitter the second the ban is lifted.

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

  • identicon
    David, 5 May 2021 @ 2:41pm

    Not that important?

    Fox News is going all to pieces over it, really. You'd think the sky to be falling down from their reaction.

    Sure, it's kind of their usual hypocrisy like when they are bad-mouthing "the media". But still.

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

  • icon
    That One Guy (profile), 5 May 2021 @ 2:55pm

    Either bring the hammer down or don't bother

    In general, the Board cited to general principles of human rights law, and specifically the Rabat Plan of Action "to assess the capacity of speech to create a serious risk of inciting discrimination, violence, or other lawless action." As for how long suspensions should generally last, they should be long enough to "deter misconduct and may, in appropriate cases, include account or page deletion.

    Given this is Trump we're talking about, someone who seems to earnestly believe that the rules/laws simply do not apply to him, anything short of a permanent ban will not be effective because anything less will simply be shrugged off and/or used to fuel the persecution complex of both him and his cultists, so between his actions and his character I'd say a permanent ban is not only warranted it's the only choice that will actually work, because if they think he was bad before just wait until they let him back on and he (rightly) comes to the conclusion that any penalties they might hand out will be nothing more than wrist slaps.

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

  • icon
    Vermont IP Lawyer (profile), 5 May 2021 @ 3:31pm

    3 Insurrections

    Everyone is familiar with the various state "3 strikes" laws. How about a new "3 Insurrections and you're banned for life"?

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

  • identicon
    Bobvious, 5 May 2021 @ 3:36pm

    It was a landslide election,

    "and everyone knows it, especially the other side, but you have to go home now."

    It was a landslide.

    FOR Biden, AGAINST Trump.

    By Trump's own reasoning.

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

  • icon
    DannyB (profile), 6 May 2021 @ 6:22am

    Dear Senator

    Dear Senator:

    I was shocked and appalled to discover that sites such at Twitter and Facebook can block certain speech. They may even ban an account for merely exercising free speech. Such as medical misinformation. I therefore urge you to immediately introduce new legislation to prevent sites such as Twitter and Facebook from blocking any speech of any kind whatsoever. In the interest of free speech! Anything that can be stated in UTF-8 should be fair game to be posted for all to enjoy. In the interest of free speech!

    I was also shocked and appalled to discover that sites such as Parler, Frank and Conservapedia are not being allowed to block certain speech. They should be allowed to ban an account for merely exercising free speech. Such as making inconvenient statements of fact, liberal ideas, or taking Our Lord's name in vein. I therefore urge you to immediately introduce new legislation to allow sites such as Parler and Frank to block speech and cancel accounts of people who desecrate their sacred pages or take our Lord's name in vane. In the interest of free speech!

    I don't usually ask you to introduce two new laws in the same letter. So thank you for your patients and consideration in this matter.

    Sincerely,

    Your constituent

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

  • This comment has been flagged by the community. Click here to show it
    icon
    restless94110 (profile), 6 May 2021 @ 12:36pm

    Nonchalant

    So totalitarian censorship by crazed lunatics is not that important? Well, just what is important in your little world? As I said before: they coming for you, buddy. Will it be important then for you? Ron White was right: You just can't fix stupid..

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

    • icon
      Toom1275 (profile), 7 May 2021 @ 11:52am

      Re: Nonchalant

      You just can't fix stupid..

      Nor for our lack of trying to fix you and the crazed lunatic worlds your censorious little totalitarian mind cooks up from whole cloth.

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

    • icon
      PaulT (profile), 7 May 2021 @ 12:14pm

      Re: Nonchalant

      "So totalitarian censorship by crazed lunatics is not that important?"

      Of course it is. Which is why Parler got kicked off so many places after they stopped anyone sane from posting on their service.

      "As I said before: they coming for you, buddy"

      Unlikely. I've not said anything that will either lead to violent morons killing people or that will lose the platforms ad revenue.

      "You just can't fix stupid.."

      Yeah, we've made peace with the fact that you'll keep commenting with the dumbest takes possible.

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

    • icon
      Stephen T. Stone (profile), 7 May 2021 @ 1:30pm

      totalitarian censorship by crazed lunatics is not that important?

      It is important. And when Facebook and Twitter can censor Donald Trump — or anyone else — we’ll worry about them being censors. Until then: Losing both an audience and a spot on private property to which you weren’t entitled isn’t censorship.

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


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