Trump Decision Shows Oversight Board Is No Facebook Cure-All

Cheyne Gateley/Variety Intelligence Platform

The big Big Tech content moderation-related decision we were all waiting to hear about was finally made this morning — in stunningly anticlimactic fashion.  

The Oversight Board, which is tasked with reviewing whether certain content moderation moves by Facebook are justified, ruled to uphold Facebook’s suspension of Trump from its platforms.  

The board in late January had been tasked with ruling (within 90 days) on whether Trump should be allowed back on Facebook after the company indefinitely suspended him following the deadly Jan. 6 Capitol insurrection.   

Seeing as the Oversight Board’s verdict came late, you might expect the decision not to overturn Facebook’s Trump suspension to generate an extra level of hype.  

But it doesn’t really feel like that’s the case, because along with choosing not to overturn the suspension, the Oversight Board ordered Facebook to reassess the indefinite time frame of the Trump suspension and “decide the appropriate penalty” within six months. 

In other words, Trump could eventually return to Facebook, just not necessarily in the near-term. 

There’s a lot of irony here, as the Oversight Board was set up largely to help avoid making these big polarizing content moderation decisions a reflection of Facebook and Mark Zuckerberg, who has noted in the past much of his time was dedicated to deciding on whether posts from high-profile individuals should be taken down. 

The Oversight Board has already published many case decisions, but by far its biggest case yet was ruling on whether President Trump should be allowed back on Facebook. Extra attention was paid to the board’s Trump case because of the wide-ranging implications it has for tech platforms in the business of content moderation.   

A suspension reversal could have caused other Facebook competitors to second-guess permanently booting testy rule-breaking political figures.

A more stern decision (than what was announced today) in favor of permanent suspension might have allowed other companies to deflect criticism that comes with booting a controversial politician (“Facebook already banned Trump!”).   

By now, Facebook’s decision has been well weighed in on, with plenty of professors (from UNC Chapel Hill, Harvard, Stanford) and civic leaders having already called for a permanent boot of Trump from the platform.  

Note the Oversight Board had overturned Facebook’s content takedowns in four out of the five case decisions it published in early January.   

Whatever happens with Facebook’s handling of the Oversight Board ruling, goodwill toward Facebook probably won’t change too dramatically.   

Observe there has been criticism that the Trump suspension came too late and it was laughable that the murky way Facebook’s engagement-hungry algorithm was even set up in a way that allowed things to get to where they were prior to the Capitol insurrection.  

On the other hand, some already viewed the indefinite suspension of Trump, which came around when most other major tech platforms restricted him in some way, as something that just marked another sign of Big Tech’s ruthless crusade against their party.   

A February letter to the Oversight Board signed by GOP reps read, “Instances where conservative viewpoints have been censored, blocked, or diminished harm the free exchange of ideas and irreparably damage conservative Americans’ faith in the fundamental fairness of purportedly neutral actors like Facebook.” 

And the number of Republicans or independents who lean Republican and believe it’s somewhat or very likely social media censors certain political viewpoints has already increased, albeit slightly, from 2018 to 2020, according to a June 2020 survey by Pew Research Center.    

In that sense, the damage seems done, with many having already decided there are places for them online other than mainstream tech platforms like Facebook and Twitter.

And with Facebook no longer able to point the finger at another entity to absolve itself from accusations of political bias with its forthcoming Trump decision, the company will continue to come under fire by critics who think it wields too much power.