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It’s not this complicated.
Like other bumbling corporations reluctant to take a stand, Facebook and its CEO, Mark Zuckerberg, have turned a temporary controversy into an ongoing fiasco. The social-media giant could have permanently banned then-President Donald Trump on Jan. 7, after he used the platform to lie about the 2020 election and praise rioters trying to seize control of the US Capitol the day before. Trump and his supporters would have squealed, but decisive action by Facebook would have left them no choice: Deal with it.
Instead, Facebook (FB) suspended Trump’s account “indefinitely,” while asking the company’s “oversight board”—a group of outside policy experts—to recommend a permanent solution. On May 5, the board “upheld” Facebook’s decision to exile Trump, but it also dinged Facebook for the arbitrary application of vague standards. Instead of handing the company a simple answer, it told Facebook to come up with a permanent solution of its own within six months.
Have you ever watched an overwrought parent try to negotiate with a misbehaving five-year-old? Instead of telling the kid to stop being a brat, the parent tries to persuade the child why it’s important to stop being a brat, hoping the child will stop being a brat because he sees the light and learns an important life lesson in the process. You want to shout, “just tell him to stop it!”
This is what’s going on with Facebook and its oversight board. Facebook is trying to dodge responsibility for making a decision sure to be unpopular with some of its users. The oversight board, relishing its own perceived importance, issued an 11,800 word communique that didn’t resolve anything. The real answer is painfully obvious: Facebook should permanently ban anybody who’s a chronic liar and violence inciter. Yet nobody in Faceworld can say it.
Let’s quickly review what’s really happening in the Facebook saga, by annotating the motives of the key players. It won’t take thousands of words.
Donald Trump. He wants the largest possible audience for his propaganda, including his lies about the 2020 election being stolen from him. Trump is a wannabe despot who claims persecution to distract followers from his aberrant behavior and his election losses. It also helps him raise money from gullible sympathizers. As a private-sector entity, Facebook has the right to boot users who cause the company trouble, which Trump clearly did. There’s no free speech or First Amendment issue at all, because Trump is still free to publish his own views on a platform of his own. If it were a free speech issue, Facebook could cite the First Amendment to declare it faces no obligation to publish anybody's views, just as a newspaper doesn't have to run government manifestoes. Trump's claim of “censorship” is ridiculous, but it obviously keeps him in the news and fires up his supporters.
The Trump cult. Echoing Trump, other Republican politicians claim Facebook and other social-media sites single out conservatives for “censorship.” They’re mixing up cause and effect. Election lies and other disinformation are now a staple of the Trump wing of the Republican party, and these lies trigger retaliation by the companies hosting the offending accounts. If Trumpers lied less, social media would “censor” them less. Most of them know this, but “censorship” gives them a bogus cause that helps generate outrage among their followers and juice their own campaign contributions.
Mark Zuckerberg. The Facebook CEO cares about making money above all, and there’s not necessarily anything wrong with that. Zuckerberg wants to outsource the decision about Trump so that he and the company don’t seem to be directly responsible for an outcome likely to anger millions of conservative Facebook users. He may also want to have plausible deniability the next time he testifies before Congress, so that when a Trump lackey such as Rep. Jim Jordan (R., Ohio) tries to pillory Zuckerberg for persecuting Trump, Zuckerberg can say, “it wasn’t me.” It’s not clear Facebook is actually losing money because of the Trump feud, but even if it is, Zuckerberg has miscalculated by failing to account for other damage caused by allowing the Trump debacle to fester.
Democrats. They don’t like Facebook either, but Sen. Elizabeth Warren and other Facebook critics on the left have a different gripe: Facebook abuses user data and has too much power in the digital advertising market. Facebook has few friends in Congress, but it does have one important thing going for it: The company’s Republican and Democratic critics are so divided that they may never agree on any legislation that reins in the company’s power.
There’s only one way the Facebook-Trump saga can end: A permanent Trump ban. Trump will never stop lying, and any negotiated return to Facebook would only restart the cycle. Around the same time Facebook indefinitely banned Trump, Twitter axed his account permanently. It didn’t drag out the decision or ask somebody else to decide for it. Twitter (TWTR) is no longer explaining or relitigating its Trump decision, which is where Facebook might be in a year or two. It has already taken too long.
Rick Newman is the author of four books, including "Rebounders: How Winners Pivot from Setback to Success.” Follow him on Twitter: @rickjnewman. You can also send confidential tips, and click here to get Rick’s stories by email.