OP-ED: Trump stays banned on Facebook. Keep it that way

Timothy L. O'Brien
Bloomberg Opinion (TNS)
Donald Trump speaks to his supporters at the Save America Rally on the Ellipse on Wednesday, Jan. 6, 2021, near the White House in Washington, D.C. His supporters laid seige to the U.S. Capitol a short time later. (Yuri Gripas/Abaca Press/TNS)

Donald Trump remains banned from Facebook Inc.’s global echo chamber, and that’s a good thing. After the social media company banned him in January for inciting a deadly insurrection at the Capitol, its Oversight Board — the outside group the company established to monitor controversial content and arbitrate thorny issues such as Trump’s exile — said Wednesday that his history of encouraging violence disqualified him for the time being.

“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,” a summary of the decision noted. The board also took Facebook itself to task, saying that “it was not appropriate for Facebook to impose the indeterminate and standardless penalty of indefinite suspension.”

It pointed out that Facebook typically penalizes rule-breakers by removing content, imposing suspensions with a clear time frame or permanently disabling an account. It called on the company to remedy confusing guidelines for how its rules are applied against any of its users, with special, but not exclusive, care given to how influential political leaders are treated.

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The board told Facebook it had six months to “reexamine the arbitrary penalty it imposed” on Trump and craft a new one commensurate with “the gravity of the violation and the prospect of future harm.”

I hope when the time comes, Trump’s ban becomes permanent. If we’ve learned anything about the former president, it’s that he isn’t just your average political speaker. He’s a ringleader. And he’s unhinged and manipulative enough to use platforms such as Facebook to do serious harm.

Had Trump been reinstated, his Facebook feed would most likely have featured familiar menu items: self-regard, pitches for money and his business, darts aimed at critics, disinformation, and appeals to bigotry, racism and other bile. He would have also occasionally encouraged his most dedicated followers to rise up and demand what’s theirs.

Trump loyalists and free speech purists will certainly savage the board’s ruling. The loyalists, who are still playing down the events of Jan. 6 while embracing Trump’s big lie that the 2020 election was stolen, are the easiest to dismiss. Suppressing Trump, they argue, is evidence of their favorite myth — so-called cancel culture. Facebook has it out for them. In the real world, far-right outlets that engage in the heaviest flame-throwing, such as the Daily Wire and Fox News, continue to enjoy the greatest engagement on Facebook.

There’s more nuance — and philosophic trapdoors — on the free speech side of the ledger. Yet where Trump resides in that world is clear, too. Our laws protect vigorous reporting and intense scrutiny of public figures while limiting, for example, protection for certain obscenities and for “fighting words.” And by fighting words, the courts have meant the kind that instill or incite hatred or violence. Has any public figure of the modern era in the U.S. deployed fighting words to such disastrous effect as Trump? Free speech is a contingent right, and Trump’s desire to incentivize his gladiators doesn’t outrank democracy, tolerance, personal and public safety, and other virtues.

The Oversight Board’s ruling is consistent with how the courts weigh rights to speech against calls to violence. If the board had given Trump a second chance, it also would have been a reminder of how poorly Facebook has policed its ubiquitous platform and how much the board appears to be a well-meaning and lushly funded fig leaf.

Trump’s proclivity for violence didn’t suddenly emerge on Jan. 6, after all. He reveled in promoting violence during rallies as a presidential candidate in 2016, and violence followed. He refused to initially condemn white nationalist violence in Charlottesville, Virginia, in 2017; blamed the media after one of his supporters sent pipe bombs to prominent Democrats and news organizations in 2018; and suggested shooting undocumented migrants at the U.S. border in 2019. Last year, amid the Covid-19 outbreak, he encouraged protesters to march against state governments mandating lockdowns; armed protesters followed suit in Lansing, Michigan. He and his campaign encouraged his “army” to take to the streets before the November election last year.

Facebook and its founder, Mark Zuckerberg, equivocated about all of this. It wasn’t until Trump told his supporters to “fight like hell” on Jan. 6, and they went on to break into the Capitol, that Facebook took action and barred him. And then it deferred to its Oversight Board on the next steps.

But the Oversight Board’s mandate is narrow (my Bloomberg Opinion colleague Noah Feldman, who is a Harvard Law School professor, helped design it). It has operational independence and a generous budget of its own, but it can rule only on whether a small portion of the tsunami of content produced on Facebook violates the company’s standards.

That might be a step in the right direction if Facebook only published content. The company does much more than that, of course. It runs a machine that encourages intense engagement among its users, and its algorithms then help highly engaging content to take flight. An outside body that only monitors a fragment of problematic cases but isn’t empowered to examine and challenge how Facebook circulates and amplifies vitriol that helps foster sprawling communities of conspiracy theorists or disseminate disinformation is merely a placeholder — and not, as Facebook would have it, a countervailing force.

I imagine that Zuckerberg would never have allowed the Oversight Board to exist if it had been constituted to be more effective. Because Facebook’s business model — the one it sells so profitably to advertisers — is built on engagement, it has shied away from pulling the plug on some of its most engaging content. An internal study it commissioned reported in 2018 that Facebook exacerbated tribalism and division among its users — behaviors that boost engagement. Facebook buried the study.

Zuckerberg has said he keeps Facebook’s spigot open in the interest of free speech and shared ideas and that was why he built it in the first place. It may also be because letting everyone uncork is a good business, one that helped make him a multibillionaire. And Zuckerberg and his team have been willing to ignore abuses of the site for so long that there’s been little reason to believe that the impact of Trump’s presence there has been — or ever will be — fully vetted or understood outside of the company.

The board’s ruling offers some hope that a more forensic examination may be possible. That’s important, because even if Trump goes away, there will be others who will try to fill his shoes on Facebook — and it’s still not clear we can expect the company or its Oversight Board to uproot them.

— Timothy L. O'Brien is a senior columnist for Bloomberg Opinion.