Critics respond to Facebook board’s decision on Trump
Charges of bias follow review board's ruling that Facebook can at least temporarily keep its ban on Donald Trump
A semi-independent oversight board said Wednesday that Facebook acted appropriately when it suspended former President Donald Trump’s account for posts that may have contributed to the violence of the Jan. 6 Capitol riot. But the board criticized the company for making the suspension indefinite and kicked the decision back to the company to reconsider.
In the two offending posts, Trump called for peace and for supporters to go home, but sympathized with those gathered to protest what he called a “stolen” and “landslide election victory,” saying, “I know your pain. I know your hurt.”
The 20-member board’s long-awaited decision means Trump may remain unable to access Facebook or Instagram for as much as six more months while the company determines how to handle influential users. The board directed a substantial part of its criticism at the ad hoc nature of the indefinite suspension, offering a series of recommendations for policies it said should be clear, necessary, and proportionate.
After the ruling, Co-chairman Michael McConnell, a Stanford law professor and one of the board’s few conservative members, acknowledged the possibility that political considerations played a role in Facebook’s decision to shut down Trump. “When you do not have clarity, consistency and transparency, there’s no way to know,” he said. “This is not the only case in which Facebook has engaged in ad hockery.”
Reaction to the ruling was swift and critical. Republicans echoed allegations that internet companies censor conservative viewpoints. “Is there anything more Orwellian than Facebook’s ‘independent oversight board,’ stocked with left-wing academics, deciding issues of free speech?” Sen. Tom Cotton, R-Ark., tweeted. Addressing liberals celebrating the ban, Sen. Ted Cruz, R-Texas, added, “if the Big Tech oligarchs can muzzle the former President, what’s to stop them from silencing you?”
Trump himself—who is reportedly considering a 2024 presidential bid—was even more blunt. “Free Speech has been taken away from the President of the United States because the Radical Left Lunatics are afraid of the truth, but the truth will come out anyway, bigger and stronger than ever before,” he wrote on his blog.
Even some Democrats noted Facebook lacks accountability despite its oversight board. Rep. Frank Pallone, D-N.J., chair of the House Committee on Energy and Commerce, accused the company of spreading disinformation regardless of whether Trump was on the platform or not: “Facebook and other social media platforms with the same business model will find ways to highlight divisive content to drive advertising revenues.”
Facebook likely hoped to get out of the hot seat by setting up and funding the independent board and agreeing to abide by its decisions. But it does not appear to have fixed what ails the company. Calls for federal legislation are likely to continue, and some states have moved ahead to address Republican concerns.
Libertarian Eugene Volokh, a University of California, Los Angeles law professor, called for treating the near-monopoly platform as a common carrier, like a phone company, echoing similar ideas from Supreme Court Justice Clarence Thomas. “It is in effect close to a monopoly in its immensely important market niche—which is especially important in an environment of political competition, where even small restraints on speech can swing elections and other public decisions,” Volokh wrote. “Facebook shouldn’t have the power to control political debate, any more than phone companies should.”
Jason Thacker, who serves as chair of research in technology ethics at Southern Baptist Convention’s Ethics and Religious Liberty Commission, said everyone should agree Facebook went outside its own policies in imposing the indefinite suspension against Trump.
“Americans across the ideological perspective acknowledge the lack of trust and transparency throughout the digital public square and are rightly concerned about the way that many of these policies are at times misapplied, ill-defined, or even bypassed all together,” he said, encouraging more dialogue about the role of social media in moderating free expression.
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