The Media Today

Facebook Oversight Board punts on Donald Trump ban

May 6, 2021

For several months, anyone who follows politics or social technology has been waiting with bated breath for a decision on whether Donald Trump would remain banned from Facebook. Trump’s account was blocked after the attack on the United States Capitol on January 6th; Facebook ruled that he had used the site to foment violence. The decision was sent for review to the company’s Oversight Board, a group of academics, legal scholars, and former journalists charged with adjudicating on content moderation. On Wednesday, the board handed down its ruling: Facebook was right to have banished Trump, but the company has no policy on the books that allows for a permanent ban. The board told Facebook that, if the company wants to lock people out—Trump, or anyone else—it needs to come up with a formal rule.

For some critics, including the so-called Real Facebook Oversight Board—a group that includes Yael Eisenstat, a former CIA officer and Facebook advisor; Roger MacNamee, a Facebook venture investor; and Maria Ressa, a crusading journalist from the Philippines—the official board’s decision reinforced a fiction that it has any power whatsoever. Although Facebook has placed the board at arm’s length—theoretically, to give it autonomy—the board was nevertheless created and funded by Facebook, which granted it a fairly limited remit. The board can make decisions about whether material (or accounts) should be removed, but it has no ability to question or influence any of Facebook’s business decisions, the way its algorithms function, or how its advertising strategy works. The board may have advised Facebook that it should write a policy on bans, but if the company decides not to create one, or not to implement it, the board has no recourse.

On a broader level, some critics argue that all of the attention being paid to the board and its Trump decision—not to mention references to it being Facebook’s Supreme Court—play into the company’s desire to make it seem like a worthwhile or even pioneering exercise in corporate governance. As Shira Ovide, of the New York Times, wrote: “Facebook is not a representative democracy with branches of government that keep a check on one another. It is a castle ruled by an all-powerful king who has invited billions of people inside to mingle—but only if they abide by opaque, ever-changing rules that are often applied by a fleet of mostly lower-wage workers.”

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In a sense, the board’s decision was more interesting for what it didn’t do than for what it did. The board declined to simply rubber-stamp Facebook’s ruling, and it did not disguise the fact that members couldn’t get answers from company executives to all of their questions about Trump’s account. The board’s decision noted that, among other things, the company refused to discuss “how Facebook’s news feed and other features impacted the visibility of Mr. Trump’s content; whether Facebook has researched, or plans to research, those design decisions in relation to the events of January 6, 2021; and information about violating content from followers of Mr. Trump’s accounts.” Facebook also declined to talk about whether Trump’s ban impacts the company’s ability to let advertisers target his followers.

Not everyone agrees, of course. If, among the ranks of the Real Oversight Board, Wednesday’s outcome seemed  a craven dereliction of duty, those who wanted Trump’s ban to be upheld were pleased to find justification based on international human rights law. Those who question the authority of the board were happy to see that the ultimate ruling would lie with Facebook, upon its enactment of a new policy. Mark Zuckerberg, however, is unlikely to be satisfied—at least not if he was hoping the board would give him a get-out-of-responsibility-free card in banning Trump. He now has six months to decide whether to formalize a rule that would banish Trump forever—and, perhaps, others in the future.

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Here’s more on Facebook and Trump:

  • Awkward: “The Board continues to ground its decisions in international human rights law. This is both understandable and perhaps inevitable given the charter,” Nate Persily, a professor of law at Stanford, wrote on Twitter. “However, I think this approach is fundamentally misguided: Facebook is not a government and the newsfeed is not a public square.” Daphne Keller, Persily’s colleague at Stanford’s Cyber Policy Center, chimed in: “I’m glad the FBOB is applying human rights law bc I can’t think of anything better [but] using the most ill-defined variant of already notoriously hazy law to criticize Facebook’s failure to set clearly defined rules is… awkward.”
  • Simulacrum: What the existence of the oversight board obscures, Will Oremus writes in the New York Times, “is that the problems with Mr. Trump’s presence on Facebook—the lies, the propaganda, the incitements—are not just Trump problems. They’re Facebook problems (and to be fair, Twitter problems). That’s why some communication scholars have dismissed the board as a red herring, substituting a simulacrum of due process in certain high-profile cases for substantive reform.”
  • Serious: For years, technology companies said that banning Trump would be impossible, Joan Donovan—the research director at the Harvard Kennedy School’s Shorenstein Center on Media, Politics, and Public Policy—wrote on Twitter. “It was so beyond their comprehension that powerful people would use their products to their advantage. Now the ball is back in the hands of Sandberg, Kaplan, Clegg, Stone, Bickert, and Zuckerberg. But, the challenge is the same: how seriously are they going to take the design of their systems in the face of its documented damage to democracy and public health?”
  • Justifiable: Jameel Jaffer, of the Knight First Amendment Institute, was one of the few who thought the oversight board’s decision was right on all counts. “The board justifiably criticizes Facebook for the standardlessness of its decision to ban Trump from the platform indefinitely,” he wrote. “It rightly criticizes Facebook for its effort to use the board as a fig leaf. It appropriately places on Facebook the ultimate responsibility for deciding whether Trump may return to the platform and, if so, on what terms.”

A programming note: We’re continuing to roll out our latest issue of the magazine, which asks the question “What is journalism?” In an entirely digital project, composed of five chapters, we’re confronting the assumptions we make about our work—so much so that we’ve referred to this as “the Existential Issue.” Today we encourage you to read the introduction by Kyle Pope, the editor and publisher of CJR, and check out Chapter 4: When. 

Other notable stories:

  • While Facebook put its decision on a Trump ban before its oversight board, Twitter—which also banished Trump after the Capitol riot—chose to survey its users and ask them for advice on how to deal with politicians who misuse the network. A spokesperson for Twitter said that the company received close to fifty thousand responses in fourteen languages. As reported by Reuters, the survey, which took place over a few months, asked questions about whether world leaders breaking Twitter’s rules should face “greater or lesser” consequences than other users, and whether it would ever be appropriate for Twitter to permanently suspend the account of a sitting president or prime minister.
  • Charlie Warzel wrote in his Substack newsletter about the launch of Trump’s website, which he said is “essentially a GoFundMe page for the twice-impeached leader of the Republican Party. The one link that does work is the one that says ‘CONTRIBUTE’ and leads to a nice page where you can give the man your money.” But despite how terrible the site is, Warzel believes there’s one way it could succeed: if “journalists, politicos, and cable news producers bookmark the page, sign up for email alerts, and then screenshot his every new missive and post them straight to Twitter.” He has already seen this happening.
  • For the new issue of CJR, Lauren Harris asked six Americans to log their media consumption over the course of a day. Their diaries reveal what happens when a journalist’s work is done, and news goes out into the world. “In many cases, participants viewed outlets as representing opposing political ‘sides’ that ought to be sampled in equal measure; they made an effort to find the center and avoid the ‘extremes,’” Harris writes. “All shared a general sense that every news source is, to some degree, untrustworthy.” 
  • Larry McShane, a reporter for the New York Daily News, has written a column pleading for a new owner to buy the paper from Tribune Publishing, which is controlled by the hedge fund Alden Global. “The situation is dire,” McShane writes. Tribune “fired half the newsroom on a single morning in 2018. Though everyone at this paper has done their best to rebound, and I’m proud of so much we do every day, we are in many ways still reeling.” (For more on Alden, read Savannah Jacobson’s piece for CJR.)
  • Bloomberg has published an excerpt from Brad Stone’s book on Amazon, in which he writes about how Jeff Bezos, the chief executive, waged a war against the National Enquirer over stories about the breakdown of his marriage. “He’d bypassed a largely skeptical media to appeal directly to regular people, only slightly bruising the facts in the process. Just as he’d outmaneuvered countless rivals, he intuitively sensed what AMI’s vulnerabilities were—and surgically attacked them. The entrepreneur who’d already commandeered the business of selling books, then much of retail, plus cloud computing, Hollywood, home speakers, and so on now asserted dominance over that unlikeliest of sectors—the celebrity media game.” (For more on the National Enquirer, read Simon V. Z. Wood’s profile for CJR.)
  • Kyle Pope writes about the Gun Violence Coverage Commitment, which came out of a summit that CJR and others convened last month to talk about how to improve gun-violence coverage, featuring journalists from the New York Times, the Washington Post, The Trace, and The Guardian. Their discussion was boiled down to six essential lessons, which form the basis of the Gun Violence Coverage Commitment. We’re asking newsrooms across the country to sign on.
  • The New York Times reported its quarterly financial results on Wednesday, announcing that it added 301,000 digital subscribers. That’s the lowest quarterly increase in more than a year, but it brings the total to almost eight million. The company’s adjusted operating profit rose by fifty-four percent, to $68 million (much better than analysts expected) and total revenue climbed by about six and a half percent to $473 million. Online subscriptions and digital advertising together rose thirty-two percent, to $239 million.
  • Will Lewis, a former chief executive officer of the Dow Jones financial news service, is launching a news startup, The News Movement, to tackle what he calls a global crisis of misinformation. According to a report from Bloomberg, The News Movement will aim to deliver trustworthy and objective information on social media. Lewis, who will serve as publisher and chief executive, is joined by cofounders Ramin Beheshti and Eleanor Breen, two former colleagues from Dow Jones.

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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.