The Irish Times View: A challenge to democracy

Facebook and free speech

Trump’s ejection from the platform was for reasons primarily of Facebook’s own problematical making. Photograph:  Olivier Douliery/  AFP via Getty Images

Trump’s ejection from the platform was for reasons primarily of Facebook’s own problematical making. Photograph: Olivier Douliery/ AFP via Getty Images

 

The long-awaited opinion last week on Facebook’s vague, “indefinite” banning of former US president Donald Trump, showcased the many perplexing frustrations inherent in Facebook’s quasi-judicial Oversight Board – and in Facebook.

In this important but exasperating opinion, the board upheld Facebook’s decision to remove Trump, made in January during the Washington insurrection that saw the then-president’s supporters violently invade Congress. Trump’s use of the platform “created an environment where a serious risk of violence was possible”, the board said, noting that the risk continues.

But at the same time, the board declined Facebook’s request that it also give “observations or recommendations” on how the company should frame policies for global leaders that use the site. Instead, the board firmly pushed back. It told the company to formulate transparent and consistent policies around allowable speech, suspensions and bans, and decide Trump’s Facebook future within six months.

The board, appointed and paid for by Facebook, consists of 20 individuals tasked with considering the thorniest content decisions made by the social media platform. Its determinations on a specific case are considered “binding” by the company, while any of the board’s recommendations for changes to policy are advisory and “non-binding”. Even if the board is funded through an independent trust, it nonetheless is Facebook-appointed. Its decisions lack legal power, and it cannot prevent Facebook chief executive Mark Zuckerberg from doing whatever he wants. Nor can the actual Facebook board, as the company’s structure gives Zuckerberg a controlling role and he cannot be overruled or removed.

Trump’s ejection from the platform was for reasons primarily of Facebook’s own problematical making. For years, the platform failed to deal effectively with misinformation, conspiracy-mongering, and hateful abuse, even when led by prominent figures. Zuckerberg insisted that Facebook should not be “arbiters of truth” and decided not to place limits on the speech of elected officials.

Nonetheless, the Oversight Board was right to uphold – for now – the decision to keep Trump off the platform, while forcing the responsibility for creating fair and consistent policies back onto an evasive Facebook. Elected officials should not be held to a significantly lower standard than ordinary users. Yet it remains deeply worrying that governments remain reluctant to regulate, leaving private social media platforms to weigh the limits of free speech in online spaces that are effectively public and global. How to clarify those rights, constrain the daunting private power of social media platforms and enforce their accountability remains a defining, existential challenge for democracy.

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