The Media Today

Facebook asks its new oversight board to rule on banning Trump

January 22, 2021

More than three years after the idea was first floated by Mark Zuckerberg, Facebook’s “oversight board” started hearing its first cases last month. Whatever the outcomes, those cases have been overshadowed by an announcement on Thursday that Facebook has sought the right to permanently banish Donald Trump. An initial ban had gone into effect on January 7, after a mob stormed the Capitol building. “We believe the risks of allowing the President to continue to use our service during this period are simply too great,” Zuckerberg wrote. “We are extending the block we have placed on his Facebook and Instagram accounts indefinitely and for at least the next two weeks until the peaceful transition of power is complete.”

In announcing that the oversight board would review the decision, Facebook made clear that it aims to ban Trump permanently. “We believe our decision was necessary and right,” wrote Nick Clegg, a former British deputy prime minister who is now Facebook’s vice-president of global communications. Still, Clegg added, “Given its significance, we think it is important for the board to review it and reach an independent judgment on whether it should be upheld.” While the company waits for the board’s decision, Clegg said, Trump’s account will remain suspended. As outlined in the documents that govern the oversight board, Trump is entitled to argue that the ban on his account is unreasonable. (Some believe that what Facebook really wants is for the board to order that he be reinstated, since his presence drives engagement, and, in turn, revenue.)

The oversight board is a controversial entity. In his blog post about the Trump case, Clegg wrote that the board is “an independent body and its decisions are binding—they can’t be overruled by CEO Mark Zuckerberg or anyone else at Facebook.” Yet Facebook provides its funding. And the charter that established the board isn’t legally binding, which means that Facebook could choose to ignore its rulings, even if it looks bad.

Some critics of the oversight board view it as a kind of Potemkin village designed to distract people—including regulators—from the company’s monopoly on social networking, and how it controls speech. This particular village is very well appointed, in that the board is filled with respected academics, judges, and others with impeccable pedigrees, such as Alan Rusbridger, a former editor of the Guardian. And the board’s charter makes it sound as though it will have significant power over what Facebook does. But the granular details are less inspiring: for example, the board can hear cases about things that were taken down or blocked, but it can’t hear cases about posts that should have been removed. Nor can it deal with cases related to Facebook Messenger or WhatsApp. These and other limitations led some critics—including former Facebook investor Roger MacNamee and Rappler founder Maria Ressa—to create what they call The Real Oversight Board, to review the decisions made by the, er, real oversight board.

Whether the board is designed to obscure and distract from Facebook’s general malevolence, or it’s a way of deflecting responsibility for particular decisions, it is nevertheless going to be interesting to see how the board handles the case of Trump. And it will also be worth watching the second thing that Facebook asked the board to consider: “any observations or recommendations around suspensions when the user is a political leader.” That is a contentious topic—since, as Jillian York, of the Electronic Frontier Foundation, has pointed out, Facebook has, in the past, banned generals from Myanmar and politicians from Turkey without saying much about why those decisions were made. If nothing else, the oversight board might provide some transparency.

Here’s more on the platforms and speech:

  • The process: Steven Levy explains in Wired how the oversight board will proceed in the Trump case: “Facebook had the option of asking the board to make an expedited decision for a quick turnaround, but considering the gravity of the case, it chose to allow the board to take its usual 90 days to process the case. (Of course, it could issue its judgement sooner.) One of the four co-chairs of the 20-person board will assign the case to a panel, which typically consists of five people (one must be in the North American region), and they will consider whether, as a major political player, Trump will be welcomed back.”
  • Ripple effects: Evelyn Douek, a lecturer at Harvard Law who has been studying the oversight board since it was first announced, writes on the Lawfare blog that the Facebook decision could have global ripple effects “for politicians in other countries who have overseen or incited violence, but whose social media accounts remain alive and well.” As of now, she argues, there’s “an apparent inconsistency in how Facebook treated Trump’s account as opposed to how it treats accounts of other leaders: Philippine President Rodrigo Duterte, for example, is still on Facebook.”
  • Must carry: Jeff Jarvis, a journalism professor at the City University of New York (which accepted donations from Facebook) wrote that he is afraid Facebook reconsidering its decision might encourage governments to impose content restrictions of their own. “I do not want a society in which a government can outlaw the ability of platforms to choose what they do and do not carry,” Jarvis says. Poland and some other countries, he notes, are considering laws that do exactly that. “Compelled speech is not free speech!”
  • Twitter’s ban: After the Capitol riot, Twitter initially chose to block Trump’s account for twelve hours, until he deleted some tweets. When he carried on with more violent statements, the company decided to ban his account permanently. Twitter said that accounts of politicians are given some leeway because “the people have a right to hold power to account in the open,” but they are not above repercussions. Jack Dorsey, Twitter’s chief executive, said that he struggled with the decision to ban Trump, which he believes could be “destructive to the noble purpose and ideals of the open internet. A company making a business decision to moderate itself is different from a government removing access, yet can feel much the same.”
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Other notable stories:

  • The first press conference of the Joe Biden era was “so normal that you could be forgiven for thinking that you had mistakenly put on an old episode of The West Wing.” writes Margaret Sullivan, the Washington Post media columnist. But this return to norms, comforting as it might seem, is also potentially dangerous, she argues, if it lulls reporters into bad old bad habits like false equivalency. Sullivan hopes that reporters will “think twice before they put a reality-denying senator like Ted Cruz or Josh Hawley on the air to promote false claims about election fraud simply because they feel they need to ‘balance’ all the (truthful) Democratic voices.”
  • Less than half of all Americans trust traditional media—a new low. According to Edelman’s annual “trust barometer” ranking, as reported by Axios, fifty-six percent of Americans agree with the statement “journalists and reporters are purposely trying to mislead people by saying things they know are false or gross exaggerations.” Fifty-eight percent of those surveyed think that “most news organizations are more concerned with supporting an ideology or political position than with informing the public.” Axios concludes, “Mistrust of media is now a central part of many Americans’ personal identity.”
  • Google has announced a deal to pay French news publishers for access to their material, after more than a decade-long fight. The company says that it will pay publishers who meet a variety of standards based on the size of their news operation, their coverage, and whether they belong to a French media association. And Google will include stories from these publishers in its recently-announced “News Showcase.” The change in policy comes after France enacted a tough copyright law; in Australia, which is now trying something similar, Google has reacted as it first did in France: with a threat to remove its search engine from the country.
  • Robert P. Baird writes for CJR about Laurene Powell Jobs and her Emerson Collective investment vehicle, which has become a tectonic force shaping American media. The Atlantic (which Emerson controls) and Pop Up (which Emerson ditched last year) have been hit recently by staff reductions and cutbacks, despite the fact that Jobs is a billionaire. “It’s not hard, especially in cold theory, to appreciate the difference between a nonprofit and for-profit enterprise. At the same time, it seems fair to ask the gut-level question that news like the Atlantic layoffs and the Pop Up separation inevitably prompts: What’s the point of having a billionaire owner if they insist on enforcing financial discipline even in the midst of a global catastrophe?”
  • Between the hours of 6am on Thursday and 6am this morning, members of The New Yorker union instituted a work stoppage. “We are withholding our labor to demand fair wages and a transparent, equitable salary structure,” the union declared in a statement. After two years of negotiations that included a proposed salary floor of $65,000 a year, the union says the magazine came back with an “egregious response”—a salary floor of $45,000. “The company’s proposal showed disrespect for us and for the work we do,” the statement read.
  • The Financial Times has a story about efforts by local newspapers such as the Hartford Courant—the oldest continuously published newspaper in the United States—to find local owners. The Courant is currently controlled by Tribune Publishing—run by Alden Global Capital, which is diabolical about cutting costs. As the FT writes, Alden’s modus operandi is to “get rid of the newsroom and sell the real estate, helping recoup the purchase price of the newspaper, then go through every line item in the paper’s expense sheet and cut.” The result: “‘Ghost’ papers unable to produce much in the way of original local journalism.”
  • Penske Media announced Thursday that Bonnie Fuller, the founder of Hollywood Life magazine, has, after a decade of corporate partnership, bought out Penske’s stake. Fuller—a former editor of Us Weekly, Marie Claire, and Cosmopolitanhas now assumed full ownership of the magazine.
Mathew Ingram is CJR’s chief digital writer. Previously, he was a senior writer with Fortune magazine. He has written about the intersection between media and technology since the earliest days of the commercial internet. His writing has been published in the Washington Post and the Financial Times as well as by Reuters and Bloomberg.