5 Quick Thoughts On Facebook's Trump Decision

The company must not consider Donald Trump a true threat

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Facebook finally acted on the Facebook Oversight Board’s ruling on whether or not to ban Donald Trump. You can read the blog post about decision, by VP Nick Clegg here. The headline is: “Trump Suspended for Two Years; Will Only Be Reinstated if Conditions Permit.”

If you’re reading this, you likely know a lot of the background for the decision. But if you don’t, I’d suggest this piece and this piece. It’s Friday, and I’m about to go hang out outside, but I thought I’d jot down my first five thoughts about the whole thing. Here goes:

  1. “If conditions permit” is the weird, load bearing phrase in this announcement. Facebook suggests that Trump’s posts, in the run-up and aftermath of January 6th, helped or exacerbated what the company is calling “times of civil unrest and ongoing violence." Donald Trump will be up for Facebook parole (lol) in January 2023 and at that moment the company says it plans to “assess whether the risk to public safety has receded.”

    This logic strikes me as either weird or impossible or both. If Donald Trump’s posts and general rhetoric helped create the conditions for civil unrest or violence and removing him deescalates that threat, how exactly does one evaluate the risk to public safety in the moments before reinstating him? Put another way: if Donald Trump posting is the risk to public safety, how do you evaluate the risk to public safety in an environment you’ve removed him from?

    Game theory aside, Facebook is unclear as to how it will assess public safety risk. It will rely on experts, but we don’t know which experts. And Facebook’s criteria seems, honestly, a bit narrow. The company said it will “evaluate external factors, including instances of violence, restrictions on peaceful assembly and other markers of civil unrest.” Those are understandable factors to review, but I’d argue that important indicators of future civil unrest aren’t just the moments of unrest themselves but factors like: The toxicity of rhetoric coming from major political candidates/figures; the strength and visibility of various insurgent or militia groups; widening inequality; waning trust in institutions; the proximity to a national election season and who is running. All of these stressors are the type of thing that a rule violating politician might seize upon — they’re good kindling, in other words, for a social media arsonist like Donald Trump.

    With that in mind, it seems like a fundamental misreading of American political life for Facebook to suggest that polarization and the cultural and political animosity that accompany it could normalize enough in the next 18 months to be back at levels where someone like Donald Trump — a man who reportedly, thinks he might be reinstated as president this summer — might no longer be a liability to civic health. Here, for example, is how Trump reacted to the ban.

    Sounds like a guy who’ll be toooooootttallly ready to behave in January 2023!

    What I’m trying to say is that if Facebook actually thinks that Donald Trump’s posts played a meaningful role in facilitating civil unrest and ongoing violence, it is preposterous to think that a set of conditions in American political life could exist to allow him back on with no negative consequences. He is the conditions! Now, if they don’t think his Facebook posts played a meaningful role, the decision makes more sense.

  2. This brings me to the actual penalty. Again, I’m basing this on the premise that Facebook believes Donald Trump’s posts played a meaningful role in facilitating civil unrest and ongoing violence. Assuming that, there is something that feels proportionally out of sync between what Facebook is accusing Trump of and the company’s maximum suspension penalty of two years. A two year time-out that expires right before an election season where he might run for president does not feel like a punishment that fits the crime, tbh. It reminds me of when a sergeant begrudgingly suspends an overzealous cop in an action movie and gruffly says, ‘two weeks with pay!’ and then tells them to go take their sweetheart on that vacation they’ve been putting off. It’s a punishment by name only.

  3. If I put on my content moderation hat, I’d guess the biggest ‘news’ here is that Facebook is putting forward some rules that are more transparent than before. They have a color coded scale now — and are publishing information on their strike system. On the whole, that sounds very positive. But let’s take a look at the actual content. Enhance:

    This is still pretty vague and arbitrary. I understand it sort of has to be, in order to be effective in the moment. But I’m frequently bummed when companies talk transparency and then I look at it and only have more questions. The same goes with the newsworthiness policy, which Facebook explains in greater detail in this announcement. It still includes sentences like this one: “When making these determinations, however, we will remove content if the risk of harm outweighs the public interest.”

    Helpfully, Facebook gives some criteria for newsworthiness, including country-specific circumstances (elections, wars), the nature of the speech, and whether the country has a free press.

    But the company still doesn’t discuss or invoke the ways that the newsworthiness clause might interact with the company’s own platform architecture. As Renee DiResta and Matt DeButts argued in Columbia Journalism Review, there’s a circular logic in Facebook’s newsworthiness policy where the platform helps things go viral which, in turn, makes them newsworthy. Rather than address its own problems, the company is keeping the focus narrow on Trump.

  4. The narrow focus feels like a missed opportunity. As I wrote in a past newsletter, Facebook could have used this opportunity to add more situational nuance to the platformed/deplatformed binary. You could make the case they’ve done this with the 1 month, 6 month, 1 year, 2 year suspension timeline. Still, I think, I agree with Aviv Ovadya’s argument in my April newsletter that there’s room for more creativity in Facebook’s enforcement guidelines.

    Facebook could, for example, reinstate Donald Trump but not allow him to use Facebook’s ad platform, should he run for office. You help to spark an insurrection, you lose your advertising privileges for life. Sounds reasonably fair to me. Facebook could choose to enable or disable any number of his account features once reinstated, and it would be well within the company’s right. But to give him the entire account back and expect he will somehow use it differently than he did before seems like that cliche definition of insanity, where you do the same thing over and over again and expect a different outcome.

  5. If you play it out, the rationale behind of Facebook’s decision is that Donald Trump is not a danger posting on Facebook unless the country is in an elevated state of civil, political, and cultural unrest/tension. This, of course, leaves out the fact that Donald Trump has historically proven himself to be a major factor for elevating civil, political, and cultural tension in the United States of America. He’s by no means the only factor, but it is legitimately ridiculous to suggest he isn’t a significant one. This is the crucial logical flaw in the language around the company’s decision and one that leads me to believe the company must not consider Donald Trump a true threat.

    Update:

    After I posted this, I got this response, which makes sense:

    It’s possible that Facebook has no plans to reinstate Trump but is too chicken shit to say anything and it totally understands that conditions will never permit his reinstatement. If that’s true (and it very well could be), it almost makes me feel worse about the state of things. The company with perhaps the most consequential grip on global public and political discourse doesn’t have the courage to articulate its values on the most slam dunk case possible. Ooof.

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