Facebook’s Oversight Board is getting its highest-profile case yet, as the company kicks its decision to boot former-President Donald Trump off its platforms to the largely untested “Supreme Court” of social media for review.
Facebook suspended Trump’s Facebook and Instagram accounts on January 7 in the immediate aftermath of the insurrectionist riots at the US Capitol. “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,” company CEO Mark Zuckerberg said at the time. “We believe the risks of allowing the President to continue to use our service during this period are simply too great. Therefore, we are extending the block we have placed on his Facebook and Instagram accounts indefinitely and for at least the next two weeks until the peaceful transition of power is complete.”
Although that two-week period is now complete, Facebook COO Sheryl Sandberg confirmed to Reuters last week that the company expected to continue the bans indefinitely and had “no plans” to let Trump resume posting content to their platforms.
“We believe our decision was necessary and right,” Facebook executive Nick Clegg wrote in a corporate blog post today. But, Clegg added, given the weight of that choice, “we think it is important for the board to review it and reach an independent judgment on whether it should be upheld.” The board’s decisions are final and binding; not even Zuckerberg can overrule them.
Facebook announced the Oversight Board initiative way back in 2019. The board was conceived as essentially a “Supreme Court” for Facebook—an independent body of experts that could review a small handful of content moderation appeals. Much like the US Supreme Court, Facebook’s Oversight Board by design is meant only to take on unique or important edge cases that are hard to qualify under Facebook’s existing rules, rather than as a mechanism for addressing Facebook’s broader moderation challenges.
The case is the first real test of the oversight board for US audiences and the board’s highest-profile assignment to date by far.
Facebook court is now in session
Although Facebook announced the formation of the board with much fanfare, the group didn’t actually didn’t get off the ground until last month, when it took on its first slate of four cases. (One of those cases was resolved before the board could review it, as the user involved chose to delete the post, so the board selected a fifth replacement case.)
This kind of case is exactly what the Oversight Board should be for, Clegg wrote. “The reaction to our decision [to ban Trump] shows the delicate balance private companies are being asked to strike. Some said that Facebook should have banned President Trump long ago, and that the violence on the Capitol was itself a product of social media; others that it was an unacceptable display of unaccountable corporate power over political speech.”
Clegg also blamed regulators for leaving Facebook—which reaches an audience of more than 2.7 billion users—to make its own decisions without having the guard rails of regulation to fall back on.
“Many argue private companies like Facebook shouldn’t be making these big decisions on their own,” Clegg wrote. “We agree. Every day, Facebook makes decisions about whether content is harmful, and these decisions are made according to Community Standards we have developed over many years. It would be better if these decisions were made according to frameworks agreed by democratically accountable lawmakers. But in the absence of such laws, there are decisions that we cannot duck.”
Zuckerberg himself has previously called on US lawmakers to impose more regulations on social media—regulations Facebook is of course happy to design itself.