Future of American Democracy Hangs in Balance and/or Doesn’t

Future of American Democracy Hangs in Balance and/or Doesn’t
Photo: Luis M. Alvarez, AP

Facebook’s Oversight Board, the supposedly independent watchdog tasked with determining whether Donald Trump’s ban from Facebook after he incited a deadly neo-fascist riot at the Capitol on Jan. 6 will be as permanent as his Twitter ban, has reached a decision. On Monday, it stated that it will be announcing its findings at Wednesday at 9:00 a.m. ET.

At stake is Trump’s ability to once again communicate with his 32 million Facebook followers, which was “indefinitely” suspended on Jan. 7 after he posted a video telling the rioters, “We love you. You’re very special.” After Twitter made it clear that Trump will never again be allowed to return, this is the ex-president’s biggest remaining chunk of social media real estate. When Facebook originally banned Trump, CEO Mark Zuckerberg explained that he had crossed the line with “use of our platform to incite violent insurrection against a democratically elected government” and “the risks of allowing the President to continue to use our service during this period are simply too great.”

After an outcry from conservatives, Facebook punted the issue to the Oversight Board, a group of academics, politicians, lawyers, tech activists, and others that the company says has the power to overrule its moderators on almost anything. Depending on who you ask, the board is either an independent check on Facebook’s wildly disproportionate influence on what views get aired online or a corporate facade designed to distance the company from the fallout of its decisions.

There is, of course, a preferable outcome: The Oversight Board recommends Facebook permanently ban Trump from posing ever again, no exceptions. But one could be hesitant to call this outcome “good,” rather than just richly deserved. Facebook has every right to allow or decline Trump further use of its services. That doesn’t somehow reverse or heal the damage the company was complicit in along the way, from years of tolerating vile hate speech and bending over backwards to justify Trump’s calls for the military to shoot protesters to serving as one of the primary organising platforms for the Jan. 6 riots.

Facebook could have banned Trump at any time — but didn’t until he was both out of power and had played his desperate last hand at retaining it. This is illustrative of the incoherent, profit-driven judgment that makes social media companies terrible arbiters of internet speech in the first place. The company has long twisted itself into pretzels to avoid angering conservative politicians and pundits who have learned to wield accusations of liberal bias as an effective cudgel to earn favourable treatment, even as its newsfeed has been a godsend to right-wing content farms. If insurrection is Facebook’s breaking point, the bar couldn’t be lower.

The other outcome is indisputably worse: That Trump is allowed to remain on the site after all that hate speech and calls to violence despite Facebook’s proven utility in helping the far-right translate rhetoric into action. For all the focus on his Twitter account, his Facebook presence was also a major megaphone. Further, data from Socialbakers showed that while the majority of Trump-related content on Twitter was negative, he enjoyed a distinct advantage on Facebook, which was awash in pro-Trump commentary and headlines.

If anything, the ex-president has become more unstable following his ouster from office — assuming such a thing is possible — with Trump issuing various bizarre proclamations from Mar-a-Lago in his continued attempts to prove he won the 2020 elections and his supporters trying to form a de facto white supremacist caucus in Congress. It’s hard to see an Oversight Board decision in favour of Trump that isn’t mostly vague, intellectually ponderous platitudes and blather about free speech divorced from what will actually happen if he’s allowed to return, and it’d set a bad precedent at a time the company has allowed other foreign leaders to act with near impunity to stir up far worse actions abroad. There will be real-life consequences if Trump is allowed to once again try to spread conspiracy theories and incite violence on Facebook.

It may be possible to overstate the impact of whatever the Oversight Board decides on Wednesday. Because it’s so heavily loaded with journalists and political elites, Twitter allowed Trump to far more easily influence the news cycle in just a few seconds, and his reach on other sites may just not be as effective. With or without Trump directly posting to Facebook, it still serves as the nerve centre of the vast right-wing online ecosystem that will survive regardless of their figurehead. While a permanent ban would be a major inconvenience, it wouldn’t do much to hobble Trump proxies in the conservative mass media, who could simply amplify what he says elsewhere. It also will do little to rein in other far-right politicians aiming to emulate his success, especially if they manage to be slightly more discerning about what they post.

There’s also the off chance that letting Trump off the Facebook leash again will backfire for both him and the rest of the GOP by helping him fuel its crazed spiral into even more niche, extreme positions, if you’re into four-dimensional Russian roulette or something.

According to the New York Times, Trump issued a statement on Monday giving a clear indication of what he’ll post if the Oversight Board takes his side: “The Fraudulent Presidential Election of 2020 will be, from this day forth, known as THE BIG LIE!” Come on, guys, this isn’t hard.