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Facebook's oversight board proved its worth by dodging final call on Trump

·Technology Editor
·5 min read
In this article:
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Wednesday, May 5, 2021

This article was first featured in Yahoo Finance Tech, a weekly newsletter highlighting our original content on the industry. Get it sent directly to your inbox every Wednesday by 4 p.m. ET. Subscribe

The board won't let Facebook avoid accounting for its decisions

Facebook’s (FB) oversight board proved its worth on Wednesday. While the board upheld the company’s initial suspension of former President Donald Trump’s accounts, it’s also pressing the social network to make the ultimate call about whether to let him back on the service.

In its decision, the board announced it would uphold Facebook’s move to restrict Trump’s ability to post to Facebook and Instagram because his posts on Jan. 6, in the midst of the riots at the Capitol, “severely violated” Facebook’s and Instagram’s community standards.

But the board also recognized that Facebook doesn’t have a policy of indefinitely suspending users. The company can either remove posts, or outright ban users, but it can’t keep them in purgatory. To that end, the board is forcing Facebook to make the final call on Trump. What’s more, the oversight board will require Facebook to justify a “proportionate response” to Trump’s action, proving the panel is serious about holding the company accountable.

“The board was also very savvy about not allowing Facebook to push all responsibility over to the oversight board to deal with this terrible question of what to do when a political leader is abusing social media, by lying or inciting violence,” Paul Barrett, deputy director of the NYU Stern Center for Business and Human Rights, told Yahoo Finance.

He added, “The company has to take responsibility for that, has to have clear rules, and has to apply them in an understandable way.”

'Direct language criticizing Facebook's approach'

The Facebook oversight board — whose members include an international team of lawyers, journalists, Nobel laureates, former political leaders, and other civic leaders — is paid by a trust funded by Facebook, raising questions about its true independence.

Still, the decision Wednesday hammered Facebook for trying to “avoid its responsibilities” by applying a “vague, standardless” penalty to Trump and then punting the matter to the board. Rather than making the decision for Facebook, the board called on the company to create standards for assessing the risks of influential accounts like Trump’s.

Former U.S. President Donald Trump acknowledges people as he gets in his SUV outside Trump Tower in the Manhattan borough of New York City, New York, U.S., March 9, 2021. REUTERS/Carlo Allegri     TPX IMAGES OF THE DAY
Former U.S. President Donald Trump acknowledges people as he gets in his SUV outside Trump Tower in the Manhattan borough of New York City, New York, U.S., March 9, 2021. REUTERS/Carlo Allegri

The board’s opinion even criticized Facebook for its response to the committee’s investigation, noting it refused to answer seven of 46 questions it was asked and answered two questions only partially. Notably, the board mentioned that Facebook refused to explain how its News Feed affected the ability of Trump’s content to spread across the platform — showing it isn’t afraid to ask the same questions Facebook critics have asked for years about its opaque algorithms.

“The tone of the decision is notable for its direct language criticizing Facebook’s approach and calling for future change,” Alexandra Reeve Givens, president and CEO of the Center for Democracy and Technology, said in a statement.

Facebook now has six months to decide what to do with Trump’s account, meaning the former president could once again become active on the social network.

Facebook’s responsibility for Jan. 6

The board isn’t just holding Facebook accountable by preventing it from shifting its responsibility for the accounts it hosts; it also questioned the company’s role in aiding in the spreading of Trump’s lies related to the 2020 election.

In its announcement, the board calls on Facebook to review its potential contribution to disinformation about election fraud that culminated in the Capitol attack. “This should be an open reflection on the design and policy choices that Facebook has made that may allow its platform to be abused,” the board said.

In its statement, the board said it sought answers from Facebook regarding whether its News Feed impacted the “visibility of Mr. Trump’s content” and whether it has “researched, or plans to research, those design decisions” in relation to the Jan. 6 attack. Facebook, however, refused to answer those questions.

Facebook CEO Mark Zuckerberg testifies during a remote video hearing held by subcommittees of the U.S. House of Representatives Energy and Commerce Committee on
Facebook CEO Mark Zuckerberg testifies during a remote video hearing on March 25, 2021. U.S. House of Representatives Energy and Commerce Committee/Handout via Reuters

Experts have called on Facebook to reveal how content spreads across its platforms for years. But with CEO Mark Zuckerberg saying he would abide by the board’s decisions, this may be the first instance in which the company is forced to reckon with its responsibility for allowing disinformation to go viral.

But to do that, according to Subbu Vincent, director for the journalism and media ethics program at the Markkula Center for Applied Ethics at Santa Clara University, Facebook also has to look at the larger narratives like disinformation fed by individual posts.

“[Facebook] must consider a new ‘dangerous narratives’ model,” Vincent said. “The design must include ‘participatory narratives’ as well. Without getting into this, the assessment of appropriate penalties will stand on faulty design and is fraught.”

While the oversight board leaves open the possibility that Trump may return to Facebook, it also says the social network should punish him right away for violating its terms of service.

“[I]f Facebook determines to return him to the platform, it must address any further violations promptly and in accordance with its established content policies,” the board noted.

For people who contend Facebook allowed Trump to spread lies on its platform for years before finally kicking him off, this could be a welcome change — even if it means Trump will have access to one of his virtual megaphones again.

By Daniel Howley, tech editor. Follow him at @DanielHowley

More from Dan:

The chip shortage has finally come for Apple

How to make your Facebook News Feed a less divisive place

Should Facebook let Trump back on? New poll shows a slim majority want to lift the ban

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