Facebook oversight board to decide Trump’s fate on the platform

Trump was suspended from the site for inciting violence in the wake of the 2020 presidential election.

Former US President Donald Trump relied on social media to reach supporters during his upset 2016 presidential campaign and four years in the White House [File: Luis M Alvarez/The Associated Press]

A semi-independent oversight board for Facebook is set to announce whether former United States President Donald Trump will be allowed to return to the social media platform.

The announcement expected later on Wednesday could mark the first major platform to end Trump’s online exile. The board may also make related recommendations to the California-based social giant.

The former president was suspended from all major social media platforms for allegedly inciting violence amid a disinformation campaign in the wake of the November 2020 US presidential election.

That campaign, in which Trump falsely claimed widespread fraud and that the election was “stolen”, culminated in rioters storming the US Capitol on January 6 as legislators met to certify the victory of President Joe Biden.

“The shocking events of the last 24 hours clearly demonstrate that President Donald Trump intends to use his remaining time in office to undermine the peaceful and lawful transition of power to his elected successor, Joe Biden,” Facebook CEO Mark Zuckerberg wrote on his Facebook page on January 7.

While Zuckerberg, in the message, defended the company’s previous decision to maintain – with warning labels – broad access to “political speech, even controversial speech”, the final straw appeared to be when Trump posted a video on Facebook as the deadly riot raged, telling his supporters: “We love you, you’re very special.”

At the time, Facebook, which also owns Instagram, said the suspension would last at least until the end of Trump’s presidency on January 20.

Twitter, where Trump had some 88 million followers, also banned the reality star-turned-president following the incident.

The company has said that ban is permanent, a decision expected to be a weighty blow to Trump’s future political ambitions and to a possible 2024 presidential bid.

Alphabet Inc’s YouTube, for its part, has said it will restore Trump’s channel when it decides the risk of violence has decreased.

Twitch and Snapchat also disabled Trump’s accounts, while Shopify took down online stores affiliated with him and Reddit removed a Trump subgroup.

Creation of oversight board

Facebook launched its oversight panel in October of 2020 during a wider debate over the responsibility social media companies bore for policing content on their sites. Facebook, in particular, had faced criticism for not being able to respond swiftly and effectively to misinformation, hate speech and various underhanded influence campaigns on the platform.

The board’s 20 members, who will eventually grow to 40, include a former prime minister of Denmark and the former editor-in-chief of The Guardian newspaper, along with legal scholars, human rights experts and journalists.

The first four board members were directly chosen by Facebook. Those four then worked with Facebook to select additional members.

While Facebook pays each board member a salary through an “independent trust”, the board’s independence has been questioned by critics who say its existence is nothing more than a public-relations balm.

The board’s decisions on cases are binding. It can also make additional suggestions that are not binding but Facebook so far has signalled it is willing to take them into consideration.

About 150,000 cases of removed or banned content have appealed to the oversight board so far, with the board saying it prioritises cases that it deems to have the widest impact on users.

‘We should remain uneasy’

Trump’s suspension from Facebook has been met with concern over content moderation and freedom of speech by both supporters of the former president and civil liberties activists.

German Chancellor Angela Merkel, meanwhile, found Facebook’s move “problematic”, with a spokesman telling reporters in January: “The right to freedom of opinion is of fundamental importance”.

Others have called for greater government oversight on big tech, saying such charged decisions should not be left up to private companies’ oversight boards.

Elizabeth Renieris, director of the Notre Dame-IBM Technology Ethics Lab, said the ruling is unlikely to end the controversy about content moderation.

“The board’s analysis and reasoning in this instance could very well help shape the policies of Facebook and other digital platforms regarding how to treat political leaders and other public figures in the future,” she told the AFP news agency.

“Whatever the decision, we should remain uneasy about the fact that decisions of this nature are being made by unelected, unaccountable corporations and their self-appointed assessors.”

On Tuesday, on the eve of the board’s expected announcement, Trump launched a space on his website where he can post messages that can be shared by others on Twitter and Facebook.

Posts on the site repeated Trump’s false claim that he lost the 2020 election because of widespread voter fraud and denigrated fellow Republicans who have been critical of him such as Senator Mitt Romney and Representative Liz Cheney.

Aides to the former president have also teased plans to launch his own social media platform, although there have been no concrete developments.

Source: Al Jazeera and news agencies