Facebook Oversight Board punts on Donald Trump ban

Note: This was originally published as the daily newsletter for the Columbia Journalism Review, where I am the chief digital writer

For several months, those who follow politics and those who are more interested in social technology have both been waiting with bated breath for a decision on whether Donald Trump would continue to be banned from posting to his account on Facebook. The former president’s account was blocked after the social network decided he used the site to foment violence, resulting in the attack on the US Capitol on January 6th, and then the decision was sent to the company’s so-called Oversight Board for review. The board — a theoretically arm’s length group of former journalists, academics, and legal scholars, including the former Prime Minister of Denmark, the former editor-in-chief of The Guardian, and a former US federal circuit-court judge — handed down its ruling on Wednesday. The board decided that Facebook was right to have banned Trump from the network for fomenting violence, but said the company had no official policy on its books that allowed it to ban him (or anyone else) permanently, and told Facebook to come up with one if it wanted to do this in the future. This appeared to please some people partially, but almost no one completely.

For some critics, including the so-called Real Facebook Oversight Board — a group that includes former CIA officer and former Facebook advisor Yael Eisenstat, Facebook venture investor Roger MacNamee, and crusading Phillippines journalist Maria Ressa — the board’s decision on Trump just reinforces the fiction that the Oversight Board has any power whatsoever over the company. Although Facebook has gone to great lengths to create a structure that puts the board at arm’s length and theoretically gives it autonomy, the board was still created by Facebook and is funded by Facebook. It also has a fairly limited remit, in the sense that it can make decisions about whether content (or accounts) should be removed or not, but it has no ability to question or influence any of Facebook’s business decisions, or the way its algorithms function, how its advertising strategy works, and so on. The board may have advised Facebook that it should have a policy about how to deal with government leaders who incite violence, but if the company decides not to create one, or not to implement it, the board can do nothing.

On a broader level, some critics argue that all of the attention being paid to the Oversight Board and its Trump decision — not to mention the 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. For some at least, it is more like a sideshow, or a Potemkin village: it looks nice from the outside, but behind the facade it’s just a two-dimensional representation of governance, held up by sticks. Shira Ovide of the New York Times wrote: “Facbook is not a representative democracy with brances 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.”

In one sense, the board’s decision was more interesting for what it didn’t do than for what it did. For example, it didn’t do the thing that some have argued was the entire cynical rationale for its existence — namely, to rubber-stamp Facebook’s decisions, and give the company a fig leaf with which to cover up its real intentions. The board’s 35-page decision also didn’t disguise the fact that even it, a body created by Facebook to provide oversight, couldn’t get answers to some of the questions its members had about Trump’s account and its impact. The decision noted that, among other things, Facebook 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.

In many ways, the Oversight Board decision was like a Rorshach test — it looked different depending on who was doing the looking. So for critics like the Real Oversight Board, it was a craven dereliction of duty, and/or a sign of how fundamentally meritless the board’s entire existence is. For those who wanted Trump’s ban to be upheld, it provides justification for that decision that is based on international human rights law and a number of related legal rulings. Those who question whether the Oversight Board should even have the power it does might be happy that it sent the decision on a lifetime ban back to Facebook rather than rubber-stamping it. Mark Zuckerberg, meanwhile, is unlikely to be pleased — at least not if he was hoping the board would give him a get-out-of-responsibility-free card to play in banning Trump. He now has six months to decide whether to ban Trump forever, and to come up with a policy that he can point to for justifying that decision.

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,” wrote Nate Persily, a professor of law at Stanford. “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, wrote that “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, writes Will Oremus 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 corporations said banning Trump would be impossible, said Joan Donovan, who runs the Technology and Social Change Project at Harvard’s Shorenstein Center. “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. And as a bonus, come by Galley, our discussion platform, on Friday for a panel on right-wing disinformation with Joan Donovan, Maria Bustillos of Brick House, Emily Bell from Columbia’s Tow Center, and writer Haley Mlotek.

Other notable stories:

While Facebook sent its decision on a Trump ban to its own Oversight Board, Twitter — which permanently banned the former president after the January 6 Capitol riot — chose to survey its users and ask them for advice on how to deal with politicians who misuse the network. The company said it got close to 50,000 response to the question, in 14 languages. A spokeswoman told Reuters that the month-long survey asked questions like whether world leaders breaking Twitter’s rules should face “greater or lesser” consequences then other users and whether it was ever appropriate for Twitter to permanently suspend the account of a current president or prime minister.

Former New York Times writer Charlie Warzel wrote in his Substack newsletter about the launch of former president Donald Trump’s website/blog, 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 says there’s one way it could succeed, and that’s 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,” which he said he has already seen happening.

Larry McShane, a reporter for the New York Daily News, has written an essay published in the Daily News pleading for a new owner to buy the paper from current owner Tribune Publishing, which is controlled by the hedge fund Alden Global. “The situation is dire,” McShane says. 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.”

In an excerpt from a book he has written on Amazon, journalist Brad Stone writes about how chief executive Jeff Bezos 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.”

CJR editor 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 in the country, including conversations with journalists from the New York Times, the Washington PostThe TraceThe Guardian and others to detail what was working, what wasn’t, and what we can do about it. Those discussions were boiled down into six essential lessons, which form the basis for the Gun Violence Coverage Commitment, which we’re hoping to convince newsrooms across the country to sign on to.

The New York Times reported its quarterly financial results on Wednesday, and said that it added 301,000 digital subscribers during the period. That’s the lowest quarterly increase in more than a year, but it brings the total to almost 8 million. The company’s adjusted operating profit rose by 54 percent to $68 million, much better than analysts expected, and total revenue climbed by about 6.6 percent to $473 million. Online subscriptions and digital advertising together rose 32 percent to $239 million.

Will Lewis, former chief executive officer of the Dow Jones financial news service, is launching a news startup to tackle what he says is a global crisis of misinformation, according to a report from Bloomberg. He says The News Movement will aim to deliver trustworthy and objective information to mass audiences 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.

Maria Bustillos writes for CJR about the impact of the age of disinformation that we are all living and working in, and talks with experts Joan Donovan of Harvard and Claire Wardle, who runs the fact-checking project First Draft. Wardle talks about how there are two information ecosystems — one that is traditional and hierarchical, and one that is more participatory ecosystem, “where people are told that they can play a role in finding out the truth, that they can find clues to the puzzle they were looking for.” It’s not hierarchical, and information ricochets around from place to place, she says.

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