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Will the Facebook Trump Suspension Decision Be Upheld?

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Cheyne Gateley/Variety Intelligence Platform

Facebook has gotten very good at deferring big decisions over the past couple of years.  

The platform began working with third-party fact-checkers in 2016. It also partnered with the Atlantic Council’s Digital Forensic Research Lab in 2018 in part to boost the “eyes and ears” on Facebook misinformation. 

And of course, this willingness to defer has culminated in the Oversight Board, first announced in November 2018 and beginning operations in 2020.  

The board — which includes veteran free speech scholars, the former Denmark Prime Minister and a Nobel Peace Prize laureate among its members — is tasked with reviewing whether certain content takedowns by Facebook are warranted.  

It has already published six case decisions, but by far its biggest case yet is ruling on whether President Trump should be allowed back on Facebook after the company indefinitely suspended him following the deadly Jan. 6 Capitol insurrection.  

By late March, the board is expected to reach a decision, which will have wide-ranging implications for tech platforms in the business of content moderation.  

A suspension reversal could cause other Facebook competitors to second-guess permanently booting testy rule-breaking political figures. A decision in favor of permanent suspension might allow other companies to deflect criticism that comes with booting a controversial politician (“Facebook already banned Trump!”).  

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

Note that the Oversight Board has overturned Facebook’s content takedowns in five out of the six case decisions it has published thus far.  

But just because the board has mostly ruled against Facebook so far doesn’t necessarily mean it’s more likely to let Trump back on Facebook platforms. In fact, I wouldn’t be surprised if Facebook’s Trump decision is upheld, as Twitter’s permanent Trump suspension  (and YouTube’s re-up) may have emboldened some Oversight Board members. 

Had this Trump decision not been handed to the Oversight Board, I might lean more toward thinking 45’s indefinite suspension will be lifted. Facebook in the past has repeatedly shown it’s willing to not be as aggressive on fake news as it could be and overcorrect in its attempt to shoot down claims of political bias, in the name of the social company’s ultimate goal: growth.  

Whatever happens, goodwill toward Facebook probably won’t change too dramatically.  

On one side, there’s the 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 Jan. 6. 

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

“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,” a February letter to the Oversight Board signed by GOP reps including Ken Buck, Jim Jordan and Matt Gaetz read.  

Moreover, the number of Republicans and 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 minds already made up that there exist digital safe havens for them beyond Facebook and mainstream tech platforms.  

And yes, the Oversight Board is billed as independent, so technically Facebook users should not be associating the Trump suspension case result with Facebook’s thinking. 

But many average Facebook users (not having a career in media, tech, academics or politics) may not even know about the Oversight Board and could just equate its decision with Facebook making it.  

That’s not to say the Oversight Board’s decision doesn’t matter. It just means there shouldn’t be too much optimism about the Trump decision significantly repairing Facebook’s public image, whichever way it ultimately goes.