I wrote yesterday about the decision by Facebook's Oversight Board to continue the social media platform's ban of former president Trump while requiring the company to impose a specific penalty within six months. The point, at the time, was that the Board's ruling was a scathing rebuke of Facebook's attempt to "avoid its responsibility."
I stand by that take, but I think there was something more important that I mostly overlooked. Take a look at this passage, the one where that quote about responsibility comes from:
In applying a vague, standardless penalty and then referring this case to the Board to resolve, Facebook seeks to avoid its responsibilities. The Board declines Facebook's request and insists that Facebook apply and justify a defined penalty.
The background is that Facebook initially restricted Trump's account on January 6 in response to his statements during the insurrection at the U.S. Capitol. It then extended that "indefinitely," and asked the Oversight Board to decide what to do.
In its ruling, the Board said Facebook's original restriction was appropriate, but that an "indefinite suspension" isn't good enough. Either Facebook should allow Trump back on its platform or remove his account entirely.
My point yesterday was that the Board shined a spotlight on the fact Facebook was trying to pass the buck to someone else to make the tough decision. The Board rejected that attempt, putting the responsibility back where it belongs--with Facebook.
But I missed a word in the second sentence of that quote. I missed the part where the Board says that Facebook must "justify a defined penalty." That one word, "justify," is important. It isn't enough that Facebook articulates whether Trump will be permanently banned. It must also explain why that's appropriate.
That's important because once Facebook makes a decision about Trump, that decision is likely to be appealed back to the Board. I'd argue that inherent in its command is an understanding that the Board expects to be reviewing the final penalty.
In insisting that Facebook produce a justification for a "defined penalty," the Board is putting it on notice that it will be carefully considering whether or not the punishment fits the--in this case--literal crime.
This might be the worst-case scenario for Facebook, despite its statement that "we believe our decision was necessary and right, and we're pleased the board has recognized that the unprecedented circumstances justified the exceptional measure we took."
Facebook was counting on the Board to take this out of its hands. At the least, it was counting on the fact that if the Board ruled Facebook had to allow Trump to return, it would have no choice. It would wash its hands of responsibility for what happened next.
Or, if the Board ruled Trump should stay banned, it would give cover to Facebook's decision. It would be able to look at critics and say, "Hey, this independent group says he has to go. We know you disagree, but you'll have to take it up with them."
But, the Board did no such thing. It didn't give Facebook cover. It's entirely Facebook's problem now. In fact, it's likely a much bigger problem than before.
If Facebook thought its decision might tamp down efforts on both sides of the political spectrum to take a more aggressive approach to regulate how social media platforms moderate content, this isn't going to help. In fact, it will surely move that needle in the opposite direction.
You only had to turn on cable news or scroll through Twitter to see the outrage among Trump's defenders in Congress, along with calls to regulate Facebook, break it apart, or eliminate section 230.
Talk about reopening a can of worms Facebook did not want anything to do with. Six months is a long time, and I'm sure Facebook doesn't want this to drag out. It wouldn't surprise me if Mark Zuckerberg is sitting somewhere thinking that there's no decision that doesn't make a lot of people very angry.
Then again, that's what comes with running the world's largest social media platform, which affects the daily lives of more than two billion people. If nothing else, it seems pretty clear that this is going to get worse long before it gets better.