Trump waiting on Facebook’s “Supreme Court” to rule
The content moderation panel is still weighing how to handle the former president’s account
More than three months after Facebook cut off President Donald Trump, the platform’s independent oversight board still has not decided whether to reinstate his account. In mid-April, the board said it needed more time to review the more than 9,000 public comments it received in the case. It gave a vague timeline for an announcement “in the coming weeks.”
The social media giant established the 20-member board, often called the “Supreme Court” of Facebook, in October to review and rule on content moderation disputes. It acts as the ultimate referee, providing a forum for any of the billions of users of Facebook and its subsidiary Instagram to appeal decisions about content they feel was wrongly removed or left in place. In anticipation of the board’s decision about Trump’s account, its members’ political leanings and recent rulings are receiving extra scrutiny.
Facebook suspended Trump for 24 hours on Jan. 6, the day of the riot at the U.S. Capitol that followed a rally of his followers at the White House. The social media company followed up with an indefinite removal the next day but referred the decision to its oversight board for review. Facebook’s head of global policy, Monika Bickert, said in a phone call to employees that while the president’s posts leading up to Jan. 6 did not directly call for violence, they “did more to contribute to, rather than diminish, the risk of continuing violence.”
Facebook created its Supreme Court after years of accusations of bias and inconsistency. In 2016, the tech site Gizmodo interviewed former Facebook news curators who said they routinely suppressed articles that would interest conservatives from appearing in the site’s trending news section.
Both sides of the political spectrum have accused Facebook of posting fake news and for using algorithms that flag content incorrectly. Sen. Josh Hawley, R-Mo., who has condemned big tech companies for their monopolistic control, echoed other conservative voices in May when he called the Facebook oversight board a censorship committee.
Oversight board members include academics, lawyers, and human rights advocates. Some conservatives have questioned their ideological independence. One former member, Pamela Karlan, a Stanford University law professor, drew criticism for referencing Trump’s teenage son, Barron, while giving expert testimony at Trump’s first impeachment trial. (She was making a quip about presidents not being kings and their children not being royalty, and she later apologized for targeting the boy.)
Karlan has since left the board to join President Joe Biden’s Justice Department. Nineteen members remain. They include: a former editor for the British newspaper The Guardian who has publicly expressed his dislike for Trump; a former Denmark prime minister from the left-wing Social Democratic Party; a member of George Soros’ Open Society Initiative; and a former law professor who worked with Hillary Clinton. Also on the board are a former federal judge appointed by President George W. Bush and the vice president of the libertarian Cato Institute.
Since its inception, the panel has received more than 300,000 cases but has chosen to review fewer than 10 that it considers critically important to public discourse. It has overturned five decisions made by Facebook’s content moderators. In other words, in five cases, the board found Facebook had infringed upon users’ free speech or had misapplied vague rules.
In one case, the board said Facebook should not have removed a post from a user in France who praised hydroxychloroquine, a medication used early in the pandemic to treat COVID-19. Earlier this month, the panel upheld Facebook’s decision to remove a Dutch video for showing two people in blackface, a violation of its rules.
The public can expect the board’s influence to grow. Guy Rosen, Facebook’s vice president of integrity, said the platform will continue to expand the scope of the oversight board, and Facebook has pledged $130 million to fund the board for at least six years. Whatever the panel decides about Trump’s suspension, as with other cases, Facebook says it will abide by the ruling.