It's a big day for Facebook decisions, and depending on who you are, you’re either thrilled or disgusted by the news. I happen to be split in the middle. I’m impressed by the new concrete rules that Facebook has put in place, suspicious of the arbitrary timeline given, and still deeply annoyed that they’re scrambling to course correct only after public backlash.
But let’s take a step back and go over what was announced today.
In May 2021, the Facebook Oversight Board upheld Facebook’s decision to suspend President Trump from the platform. However, they were critical of the arbitrary nature of the decision, stating that Facebook needed to come up with better standards that could be applied across the board in similar future situations. The Oversight Board then “insisted” that Facebook review the matter and come up with a final decision within 6 months.
The Oversight Board punting the decision back to Facebook effectively raises the question: “what’s the point of having an oversight board to begin with?”, but that’s a conversation for another time.
This morning, Facebook announced that the former President would be suspended for 2 years and would only be reinstated, if conditions permit, in January 2023.
To start things off, 2 years is incredibly arbitrary - how did they arrive at 2 years? Additionally, given the magnitude of President Trump’s incitement of violence, why has he only been suspended for 2 years? If inciting an insurrection as the President gets you suspended for 2 years, what do you have to do to get a lifetime ban?
Sure, their graphic clearly states “permanent removal is an option”, but there’s no clear guidelines as to what would result in removal. By purposefully being vague about permanent removal, it seems like Facebook can apply that rule on a case by case basis, which I understand, but also defeats the purpose of announcing a set of policies they’re planning to abide by.
Arbitrariness aside, these are ACTUAL rules, which make me happy. I guess when the bar has historically been set so low, you can’t go anywhere but up, and Facebook announcing concrete punishments for “public figures who incite violence” is still a massive win for the 2 billion people who use the platform everyday.
Facebook has said that once the 2 years are up, President Trump’s suspension will be reassessed to see if he is “still a serious risk to public safety” and make a decision based on that. The suspicious side of me can’t help but think it’s a 2 year suspension just-in time for the next Presidential election where he can get back on the platform and spread more vitriol as campaigns are in full-swing and Republicans clamor to take back The White House. I’d love to be proven wrong, and it would be fantastic to see Trump get back on Facebook only to be swiftly suspended again by the new rules Facebook has put in place. Not going to hold my breath though…
We have to remember that Facebook is a quasi-government in itself, and it needs to work with governments regardless of who is in power. Democrats are in power now? Content moderation is something that’s important to Facebook. Republicans look like they can take back The White House in 2024? We’ll be sure to amplify the loudest political voices for our engagement, often turning a blind eye to the disinformation they spread.
The last thing I wanted to touch on is Facebook announcing that they’re ending special treatment for politicians. I genuinely did not expect this. Politicians have been given a ton of leeway on Facebook. Executives within the company have long believed that Facebook shouldn’t be in the business of policing or censoring speech by politicians and that anything they say to their audience is newsworthy and part of public debate. While this allows public servants to exercise free speech and speak their minds, it also means that politicians spreading disinformation about the election or those who’d post deep fake videos would face no punishment whatsoever, and more importantly would negatively affect the mindset and public opinion of millions of people who’d see their posts everyday.
Though this rule comes to an end today, it’s important to keep in mind that if content posted by politicians is held to the same scrutiny as content posted by anyone else, there needs to be rules set in place for people (politician or otherwise) who break these content rules. I’m thrilled that politicians' postings will not be considered “newsworthy” anymore, but politicians' speech is very much different than that of normal individuals. Since they have larger audiences and the means to incite panic and violence, they need to be held to a higher standard with regards to moderation and enforcement.
I’m an optimist and I believe in tech being a force for good, so I’m honestly happy that Facebook has put these basic rules into place. Only time will tell whether there is good intention behind these policies and whether they’ll be upheld effectively or rather if it’s a facade meant to placate the general audience and shift their attention to other injustices in the world.
Till next time, thanks for reading!