On Wednesday Facebook announced that its Oversight Board has upheld the decision to ban former President Donald Trump, but also said that instead of an “indefinite suspension,” the social media company would review the decision and determine an “appropriate action” within six months.
That particular ruling hasn’t pleased anyone. Conservatives have responded that their voices are being silenced, while liberals have said the ruling leaves open the possibility that the former president could return when other private citizens have been banned from the platform permanently.
The former president was quick to respond.
“These corrupt social media companies must pay a political price, and must never again be allowed to destroy and decimate our Electoral Process,” Trump said in a statement.
Hours before the decision was announced the hashtag #DeleteFacebook began to trend – but it was supported by those who feared that the platform would allow Trump to return. It remained popular through the early afternoon on Wednesday for the exact opposite reason.
“It is a reflection of our polarized society,” said Chris Haynes, Ph.D., associate professor of national security and political science at the University of New Haven.
“All these calls to cancel this or that are just an attempt of attention hogging,” suggested technology industry analyst Roger Entner of Recon Analytics.
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“Despite of different almost daily calls to silence, ignore, cancel Facebook from all sides of the political spectrum, the reality is that Facebook’s customer numbers are increasing every quarter. That shows you the difference of what people say and do,” Entner added. “Facebook is exercising its right of companies not to do business with anyone they do not want to do business with. Over the last several years the Supreme Court, championed by the Republican Party, has successively strengthened the right of companies to do so.”
The calls to boycott Facebook or the other platforms are also not unexpected, but it isn’t likely they’ll mean much, however.
“Consumers often call on fellow consumers to stop patronizing a business until it changes its way,” noted Bob Jarvis, professor of law at Nova Southeastern University. “Boycotts are not illegal in the U.S. – except in certain instances not relevant here – and often are highly effective. Thus, I see nothing wrong with consumers calling for a boycott of Facebook. Facebook, in turn, can yield to the boycotters or resist them as it sees fit.”
Not A First Amendment Issue
It didn’t take long for reactions to spread across social platforms and “1st Amendment” began to trend – with many suggesting that the social network was “censoring” Mr. Trump. Neither is of course correct.
“This isn’t a First Amendment issue because Facebook is a private company,” explained Jarvis. “What we have here is merely a call for consumers to stop patronizing a business if it does something that certain consumers oppose. As for Trump, he repeatedly violated Facebook’s ‘terms of service,’ which is what got him banned. Notice that the Facebook Oversight Committee did not say that Facebook could not suspend him, just that it could not do so indefinitely and either had to readmit him, state a definite term for the suspension, or impose a permanent ban.”
Trump, like any American, is free not to follow Facebook’s terms of service, but like any user should understand he risks being thrown off Facebook for doing so. This is no different than being ejected from a store that has a ‘no shoes, no shirt, no service’ policy for refusing to wear shoes and a shirt.
Silencing Some Voices
Supporters of Trump, including many lawmakers, have expressed concerns that Facebook – or any social media company – is banning some voices.
“Trump was not silenced because of his views, but because he was spreading clearly false information,” added Jarvis. “This is akin to Justice Oliver Wendell Holmes, Jr.’s old (1919) example that while a person can speak, they cannot falsely yell fire in a crowded theater because of the panic such a statement is likely to elicit. Trump was unable to stop falsely yelling fire, so Facebook (akin to a theater) banned him. Had Trump merely been expressing conservative views without the falsehoods, he would not have banned.”
However, as has been seen, Trump is still getting a review that many others might not receive in similar situations.
“It is concerning that there are different standards, including for those who may be more rich and powerful,” explained Haynes. “However, Facebook has made it clear the way they are deciding these cases can often be arbitrary. We need to remember that private companies can decide who they choose to do business with, and consumers don’t have to be a part of Facebook.”
The power that Facebook and Twitter each wield has increased as more Americans now get their news via those platforms, so it could be argued that they have too much influence on our communication.
“It is concerning as they occupy such a market share, and that they could constrain their standards in how people express their political opinions,” added Haynes.
“Conservatives and liberals alike should be worried if we are venturing into a world where big tech platforms bow to pressure from elected officials to choose which voices to allow,” said Red Edge digital strategist Bret Jacobson.
“It would be better for us all if instead they allowed as many voices as possible to speak, so long as those voices aren’t actively harming other people and strong filtering options are in place,” suggested Jacobson. “If we force conversations onto hyper-politicized niche platforms, the net result will be a less informed, more irritable, and ultimately unstable civic body.”
It also could be an issue for other law makers and even world leaders, who could have their voiced silenced on the platforms.
“What is more striking about the decision and related recommendations is not related to President Trump, but how Facebook will deal with other world leaders and government officials,” noted Nina Jankowicz, disinformation fellow with the Science And Technology Innovation Program at The Wilson Center in Washington, DC.
“The Board acknowledges that not just officials, but influencers have an outsized influence on politically motivated violence, and recommends that Facebook invest in local subject matter, cultural, and linguistic experts to help them monitor content and enforce policies, an area in which Facebook has been notoriously underinvested,” Jankowicz added. “The decision is not a ‘win’ for any political force. It is a start toward more equitable enforcement and discourse on Facebook, but until some of these recommendations are translated into law and carry consequences, democratic discourse around the world will continue to be at the mercy of social media executives.”