It never occurred to me that a Facebook-appointed panel could avoid a clear decision about Donald Trump’s heinous online behavior. But that is what it’s done.
Over the next days, we will hear a lot of huffing and puffing about the Oversight Board’s decision to uphold a ban on former President Donald Trump from Facebook.
That is appropriate since the question of how to treat speech on social media platforms is a major and perhaps impossible one to wrangle with — especially when it comes to important political figures who relish in being divisive. Which is why the external board decided to punt the fetid Trump situation back to the Facebook leadership.
It’s kind of perfect, actually, since it forces everyone’s hand — from the Facebook chief executive Mark Zuckerberg to our limp legislators in Congress.
In general, I have considered the case of Mr. Trump to be much less complex than people seem to think. And it has been made to appear highly complicated by big tech companies like Facebook because they want to exhaust us all in a noisy and intractable debate.
Mr. Trump should be seen as an outlier — a lone, longtime rule breaker who was coddled and protected on social media platforms until he wandered into seditious territory. He’s an unrepentant gamer of Facebook’s badly enforced rules who will never change. He got away with it for years and spread myriad self-serving lies far and wide.
So why should Mr. Trump stop now?
One way to answer that would be to ask why so many Republicans believe the Big Lie that President Biden was not elected fairly. Or why do so many of the same people resist Covid-19 vaccinations?
It’s all because of the inexhaustible Trump digital army, which is both organized and scattered, and has been enabled by social media companies.
The Reddit chief executive Steve Huffman called the behavior of these pro-Trump forces “malicious compliance” — which means totally noncompliant — in an interview with me earlier this year. And that’s the reason he finally and correctly threw some Trumpets off his platform.
For a long time, Reddit was one of the most vehement defenders of any and all speech on tech platforms. That is, until it was clear that Reddit was being played for idiots by trolls.
And Facebook has been played, too.
Mr. Trump (and his acolytes) spent years crossing lines in the digital sand. He’s good at it — and now he’s paying the price for his social media success by being rendered silent (at least as silent as a loudmouth can be).
The main problem is that Facebook has offloaded important decisions, like that of Mr. Trump’s fate on the platform, to its Oversight Board, an unwieldy and ultimately ineffective body that makes the United Nations look decisive. The board is apparently independent — but it’s a system essentially created by Facebook. It’s paid for by Facebook, and its members are picked by Facebook. It’s a glorified corporate advisory board of just 20 people who have made a key decision for the rest of us. And it appears as if the board members realized that this decision was not theirs to make.
Agreed. This lazy abrogation of responsibility by the Facebook leadership is par for the course for the most hopelessly compromised company in tech, which has bungled controversies for years.
At least, in his various and sundry heinous behaviors, Mr. Trump has been explicit and his intent has been relatively clear, i.e., to anger the media, to lie repeatedly, to monger fear, to make stupid jokes at the expense of others, to wink and then nod to the base.
In moving the key decision over Mr. Trump out of its own hands (where it belonged), the company has passed along the hottest of potatoes and said good riddance to responsibility. Facebook is pretending that its hands are tied, even though Facebook executives were the ones who tied them.
I can’t get the phrase “arbiter of truth” out of my head.
“I just believe strongly that Facebook shouldn’t be the arbiter of truth of everything that people say online,” Mr. Zuckerberg said in an interview with Fox News in mid-2020. “Private companies probably shouldn’t be, especially these platform companies, shouldn’t be in the position of doing that.”
Mr. Zuckerberg was trying to wrangle out of making the hard decision about Mr. Trump that the head of Twitter, Jack Dorsey, eventually made when he permanently banned the president from that service. The Twitter ban came at the bitter end, in the wake of the storming of the Capitol on Jan. 6; it was too little, too late. But Mr. Dorsey did it — and he has stuck to it.
Not Mr. Zuckerberg.
Here are some questions I would ask the Facebook chief if given the chance: Why build a platform that requires an arbiter of truth if you don’t want to be one? Could you not have foreseen the inevitable end point of that position? Did you trust too much that the community would sort out truth from lies?
Or was it all just a feint?
Remember, Mr. Zuckerberg said that “arbiter of truth” gem almost a year ago, in yet another attempt to ingratiate his company with the then-ruling Trump administration. And we now know how that dereliction of duty turned out. A smash and a grab for democracy, for which the instigator-in-chief will never be punished.
For now, though, we are saved by a decision of a body that cannot keep doing this over and over, with no fail-safe for the next time, when a smarter, more savvy version of Mr. Trump emerges and makes no unforced errors.
It also shines a spotlight on the actual problem: Facebook has grown too powerful and the only fix is to get government legislators to come up with a way to allow more competition and to take impossible decisions out of the hands of too few people.
Until then, it’ll be an endless and exhausting game of hot potato, in which no one wins.
Good riddance to Trump? Hardly.
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