America may have to wait another six months to find out whether Facebook has the capacity to make a good decision.
On Wednesday, Facebook’s Oversight Board announced that it would uphold the social media network’s decision to suspend Donald Trump from its main site and Instagram after he rallied his supporters to attack the Capitol on Jan. 6 in a failed effort to stop the certification of Joe Biden’s victory in the presidential race. It also ruled that when Facebook announced Trump would be banned “indefinitely” and punted the final decision on whether it would become permanent to the board, it was just arbitrarily making shit up.
“The Board has upheld Facebook’s decision on January 7, 2021, to restrict then-President Donald Trump’s access to posting content on his Facebook page and Instagram account,” the board wrote in its decision. “However, it was not appropriate for Facebook to impose the indeterminate and standardless penalty of indefinite suspension. Facebook’s normal penalties include removing the violating content, imposing a time-bound period of suspension, or permanently disabling the page and account.”
“The Board found that the two posts by Mr. Trump on January 6 severely violated Facebook’s Community Standards and Instagram’s Community Guidelines,” the board continued. “‘We love you. You’re very special’ in the first post and ‘great patriots’ and ‘remember this day forever’ in the second post violated Facebook’s rules prohibiting praise or support of people engaged in violence. … The Board found that, in maintaining an unfounded narrative of electoral fraud and persistent calls to action, Mr. Trump created an environment where a serious risk of violence was possible.”
“Given the seriousness of the violations and the ongoing risk of violence, Facebook was justified in suspending Mr. Trump’s accounts on January 6 and extending that suspension on January 7,” they added. “…[But] it is not permissible for Facebook to keep a user off the platform for an undefined period, with no criteria for when or whether the account will be restored… In applying a vague, standardless penalty and then referring this case to the Board to resolve, Facebook seeks to avoid its responsibilities.”
The board then told Facebook that within six months, it must revisit the matter and either make Trump’s ban permanent themselves or release his account. They wrote the final determination “must be based on the gravity of the violation and the prospect of future harm” and “be consistent with Facebook’s rules for severe violations, which must, in turn, be clear, necessary and proportionate.”
Facebook’s normal penalties include removing the violating content, imposing a time-bound period of suspension, or permanently disabling the page and account.
The Oversight Board, depending on who one asks, is either an independent body made up of academics, lawyers, politicians, and free speech activists with the ability to review and overrule virtually any of Facebook’s moderation decisions, including when Facebook rules in favour of the person who posted the contested content — or it’s an exercise in thinly veiled corporate obfuscation designed to add a patina of legitimacy to the company’s decisions. (Don’t blame us; blame the Oversight Board!) The board issued its first set of rulings in January, but the board took months to reach a conclusion as to whether our former carbuncle-in-chief’s use of Facebook to try and incite a coup, albeit a really shitty one, violated the site’s rules despite it clearly having done so.
Cori Crider, a director at Foxglove, a non-profit that works with Facebook content moderators around the world, told Gizmodo via email that the Oversight Board served to distract from Facebook’s broken moderation system and the gruelling conditions that the army of contractors who man it labors under. Crider said absorbing the real cost of providing adequate “staff, pay, and mental health support” to keep Facebook would be transformative for the company, which is why they’ve done everything in their power to avoid doing it.
“Facebook is desperately hoping we’ll all pay attention to its shiny Oversight Board and ignore the real issue–content moderation on Facebook is totally broken,” Crider wrote. “It’s mostly done not by this Board but in digital sweatshops, and they don’t want to spend the money to fix it.”
“Today’s decision about Donald Trump is just one of thousands of similar decisions that get made every day with far less fanfare by underpaid, outsourced content moderators,” Crider wrote. “But instead of a plummy title and a six-figure stipend, the real content moderators are kept in working conditions that give lots of them PTSD. Facebook refuses to hire them, even though they’re the very heart of the business. And this lackadaisical approach to industrial-scale content moderation hasn’t been remotely enough to stop Facebook being a river of hate, lies, and violence.”
“… Moderators have real insight into the spread of lies and violence on Facebook, but when they try to suggest changes or report issues up, it’s like talking to a brick wall. Zuck ought to listen to their views,” Crider added. “I’d also invite all the Oversight Board members, if they’re really concerned about the health of the global public square, to sit in a Facebook moderator’s shoes for a week and grapple with the violence and hate and child abuse themselves. It would open their eyes to what Facebook really is – and lead to them calling for their colleagues to be given a fairer shake.”
Trump was always more concerned with the ban on @realDonaldTrump, his now-defunct Twitter account where he could more directly influence or at least try to piss off the droves of media and political elites on the platform. His account peaked at nearly 89 million followers before the kill date in January. Trump went so far as to continue posting via a series of alts including his campaign account, which was banned too. He’s seemed less eager about Facebook, where he has just shy of 33 million followers and an additional 24 million on Instagram, despite the site fuelling a vast, servile right-wing digital media ecosystem that relentlessly promoted his presidency, filled his coffers, and ginned up the manpower for the Jan. 6 riot. He did briefly attempt to evade the ban by livestreaming via daughter-in-law Lara Trump’s account, though that attempt was aborted after Facebook warned workarounds wouldn’t pass scrutiny.
While Wednesday’s decision does uphold Facebook’s original decision to suspend access to Trump’s account, it could also be read as giving Facebook up to another six months to make up its mind after seeing which way the winds are blowing. Conservatives went into virtual apoplexy when Trump got banned from both sites, neutering his social media presence overnight. They’re bound to be just as displeased about the Oversight Board’s decision, which puts a capstone on four years of Facebook and its CEO Mark Zuckerberg bending over backwards to please Republican politicians and pundits who went on to vitriolically criticise the site anyhow.
Now will start another era of Facebook doing exactly that, just in a slightly different manner with vaguely different rhetoric and with or without Trump. The system works!
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