Facebook's Oversight Board has finally issued its long-awaited ruling on the company's decision to "indefinitely suspend" former President Donald Trump after his statements during, and following, the January 6 riot at the U.S. Capitol.
At the time, Facebook said it believed "the risks of allowing President Trump to continue to use our service during this period are simply too great." As a result, the company blocked Trump's access to Facebook and Instagram "for at least the next two weeks."
Then, two weeks later, it decided it would refer the matter to the Oversight Board it set up to review content moderation decisions on the platform. That board, according to Facebook, was established "to make the final call on some of the most difficult content decisions Facebook makes."
Banning the president of the United States would certainly qualify as a "difficult content decision." Although, as the board points out, Facebook didn't actually make a difficult content decision in this case. It didn't really make a decision at all. Instead, it imposed an indefinite suspension, and then asked someone else to make the call, a point the board made, while upholding the original suspension.
The Board has upheld Facebook's decision on January 7, 2021, to restrict then-President Donald Trump's access to posting content on his Facebook page and Instagram account ... However, it was not appropriate for Facebook to impose the indeterminate and standardless penalty of indefinite suspension.
The ruling goes on to say that Facebook has six months to decide what an appropriate penalty is based on the severity of the circumstances. That could very well include a permanent ban, but if Facebook wants Trump off its platform, it has to be willing to stand up and say just that. That's actually an important point, and one that shouldn't be lost in all of the reporting that the board "upheld" Facebook's ban.
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.
See, I would argue the board didn't really "uphold" the ban. You can't uphold something and also call it vague and standardless. Instead, the board upheld the original decision to restrict Trump, but then issues a devastating criticism of Facebook's complete lack of willingness to make a difficult content decision.
"Facebook seeks to avoid its responsibilities."
In fact, with just those six words, the Oversight Board highlighted everything that's wrong with Facebook.
Facebook absolutely should have the right to set rules and guidelines about how people share content on its platform. Obviously, things get complicated when the people sharing content are world leaders and incite their followers to an insurrection. Still, Facebook should be able to impose penalties when people violate those rules.
The problem is, as the board points out, Facebook didn't even follow its own rules--and didn't actually impose a penalty. It would be as if a judge found you guilty of doing something wrong, sent you to prison indefinitely, and then asked the court of appeals to decide how long you should stay. That's just not how it's supposed to work.
It's definitely not how it's supposed to work when you're the world's largest social media platform with influence over the lives of billions of people every day. In the words of Peter Parker's Uncle Ben, "With great power comes great responsibility."
The thing is, that idea didn't originate with a fictional comic book character. You'll find the same sentiment in writings from the French National Convention in 1793 ("They must consider that great responsibility follows inseparably from great power").
You'll even find it in the Bible, in the Gospel of Luke: "Much will be required of everyone who has been given much. And even more will be expected of the one who has been entrusted with more." (Luke 12:28).
My point is, the board got this part exactly right. Whether Facebook should have banned Trump or not, it should have made a decision, justified its reasons, and stood by it. Instead, it passed the buck to an arbitrary group it set up so that it could avoid the tough decisions.
We should expect more.