Facebook Board Trump Decision Draws Praise, Fire, from Inside Beltway

Capitol Hill
(Image credit: Gary Arlen)

The decision by Facebook's independent content moderation oversight board Wednesday (May 5) to continue the ban of former President Donald Trump's social media accounts--Facebook and Instagram--for at least another six months, but require Facebook to reconsider and/or justify a permanent ban, drew lots of attention inside the Beltway, including from legislators who did not generally appear pleased.

Rep. Frank Pallone (D-N.J.), chairman of the powerful House Energy & Commerce Committee, was not breaking out the champagne, either.

"Donald Trump has played a big role in helping Facebook spread disinformation, but whether he’s on the platform or not, Facebook and other social media platforms with the same business model will find ways to highlight divisive content to drive advertising revenues," Pallone tweeted following the decision.

Pallone is among a bunch of legislators eyeing changes to Sec. 230 to hold social media sites more accountable for content moderation decisions. 

Another is Sen. Roger Wicker (R-Miss.), ranking member of the Senate Commerce Committee. “This decision further illustrates the concentrated control #BigTech exerts over speech and why Congress should act to curb its dominance," said Wicker. 

“For years, we saw former President Donald Trump – along with a number of foreign leaders – successfully utilize Facebook and other large social media platforms to sow misinformation, bully opponents, and spread anti-democratic vitriol," said Sen. Mark Warner (D-Va.), chairman of the Senate Intelligence Committee and a former tech exec himself. "While this is a welcome step by Facebook, the reality is that bad actors still have the ability to exploit and weaponize the platform. Policymakers ultimately must address the root of these issues, which includes pushing for oversight and effective moderation mechanisms to hold platforms accountable for a business model that spreads real-world harm.”

“Big Tech operates without clear, consistent moderation rules, and their appeals system lacks transparency," said Rep. Cathy McMorris Rodgers, ranking member of the House E&C and no fan of the the decision. "For the Oversight Board to punt such an important decision back to Facebook after months of secret deliberations calls into question their purpose. This is unacceptable and only underscores the need for Congress to step up our work to bring much-needed reform and oversight to Big Tech.”

"As someone who has expressed serious concerns regarding the expanding impact of the Cancel Culture, I don’t have a particular problem with the Oversight Board’s decision regarding Donald Trump’s account," said Free State Foundation President Randolph May. "Indeed, I think the most important aspect of the Board’s decision is its determination that it was not appropriate for Facebook to impose an indefinite suspension with no criteria for when or whether Trump’s account will be restored. In chastising Facebook for applying a ‘vague, standard-less penalty,’ the Board gets to the nub of the problem that creates so much unease with Big Tech’s cancellation power. So, I applaud its decision in this regard.

Also Read: Trump Launches Web Site in Advance of Facebook Decision

"My primary concern is not whether, or how soon, Trump gets back on Facebook, Twitter, or any other platform. Personally, I’d be happier if he said much less about many things. Rather I’m concerned that any action regarding Trump, regardless of what you think about him, not detract from the larger conversation that, as a society, we need to have regarding the growing impact of the Cancel Culture in shrinking the space for legitimate public debate.”

“The Facebook Oversight Board’s decision exposes many of the flaws in the platform’s existing content moderation policies and practices," said Common Cause Media and Democratcy program director. "While the ruling upholds the temporary suspension of Trump’s account, it effectively punts the decision back to Facebook to apply one of its existing policies to determine the future of the former president’s account. In the next six months, the platform could decide to permanently ban or restore Trump’s account. Whatever decision Facebook decides is potentially reviewable by the Oversight Board, creating an endless cycle of uncertainty."

“This decision, in some ways, has vast implications on free speech because it reinforces the power and authority the private site has in determining who can speak on the platform," said Roy Gutterman, director of the Tully Center for Free Speech and a professor at Syracuse's NewHouse School. "On the other hand, the decision also reinforces some legal or quasi-legal standards for speech that incites violence, empowering the platforms to make determinations on whether some speech violates the terms of service or community standards on the platform. 

“I am less worried about the former president than I would be for an ordinary citizen who posts comments that might be on the border of violating the terms of service. The former president is not without resources to get his message to others, I mean, he is launching a new website or message board.  Ordinary people or speakers do not have the same resources or access to media, and banning them could be more troubling.”

Perhaps anticipating he would not be coming back to Facebook anytime soon, the Trump launched his new web site the day before the Facebook board had said it was making its decision. Trump continued to assert the election was a fraud and he should be President.

Facebook critic Free Press was not assuaged by the board's decision.

“While today’s Oversight Board decision to uphold Donald Trump’s suspension from Facebook is welcome, it’s a temporary Band-Aid that obscures a much larger problem: the greed-driven incentives that compel Facebook to trade public safety for corporate profit," said Free Press co-CEO Jessica González. "Today’s ruling doesn’t end Facebook’s practice of allowing political leaders to break the rules, sow violence and undermine democracies.... The Oversight Board cannot be trusted to issue independent decisions in future cases as it’s part of the same toxic apparatus and limited by the structural rot at the core of Facebook."

"The vast majority of people who are silenced by Big Tech platform censorship are not former Presidents or celebrities, they are marginalized people, particularly sex workers and politically active Muslims who live outside the U.S.," said Fight for the Future (FFTF) Director Even Greer. FFTF is critical of both Trump and Facebook, as well as assuming more aggressive platform moderation will rein in Big Tech. "We can go back and forth all day about where the lines should be drawn, but simply demanding more and faster removal of content will not address the very real harms we are seeing," says Greer. "It’s quite telling that Facebook refused to answer several of the Oversight Board’s questions about its algorithms and actual design decisions. We need to strike at the root of the problem: break Big Tech giants, ban surveillance advertising and non-transparent algorithmic manipulation, and fight for policies that address this parasitic business model while preserving the transformative and democratizing power of the Internet as a powerful tool for social movements working for justice and liberation."

“The Board made the right decision in this case, both in upholding the ban on the former president and in requiring Facebook to publish criteria for when or whether a suspended account will be restored," said Sarah Morris, director of New America's Open Technology Institute. "Every Facebook user will benefit from clear policies that govern not only content, but also potential penalties and avenues of recourse."

Saying the board had kicked the can down the road, Media Matters for America has launched a new tool to help Web users report Trump's past content that violated Facebook standards.

"Facebook doesn't need 6 months to review Trump's posts and make a decision," Media Matters said. "Our team at Media Matters already went through all 6,018 of Trump's posts from 2020 and found that a whopping 24% of them contained misinformation or extreme rhetoric. There are hundreds of harmful and inaccurate posts on Trump's account that ostensibly violate Facebook's rules.

"Let's hold Facebook's feet to the fire and speed this process along by reporting some of Trump's worst violative content to Facebook.

"Facebook needs to permanently ban Trump now -- and you can help."

John Eggerton

Contributing editor John Eggerton has been an editor and/or writer on media regulation, legislation and policy for over four decades, including covering the FCC, FTC, Congress, the major media trade associations, and the federal courts. In addition to Multichannel News and Broadcasting + Cable, his work has appeared in Radio World, TV Technology, TV Fax, This Week in Consumer Electronics, Variety and the Encyclopedia Britannica.