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Even Facebook’s Handpicked “Supreme Court” Thinks Its Policies Are a Joke

The Facebook Oversight Board upheld Trump’s ban, but ridiculed the company in the process: “In applying a vague, standardless penalty ... Facebook seeks to avoid its responsibilities.”

An effigy of Facebook CEO Mark Zuckerberg, dressed as a Capitol rioter
An effigy of Facebook CEO Mark Zuckerberg, dressed as a January 6 insurrectionist, is placed near the U.S. Capitol in March.

He has yet to launch his rumored social media platform, but we now know where the former president will be posting for at least the next six months. It’s called From the Desk of Donald J. Trump: a drab, dated microblog that would be equally comical and forgettable if it weren’t the new mouthpiece of this country’s most powerful demagogue.

Unless Parler backs up a truckload of cash to Mar-a-Lago, this might be Trump’s only option. He remains banned from Twitter, and on Wednesday morning the Facebook Oversight Board—or FOB, a pseudo-legal organization conceived and subsidized by Facebook to issue binding decisions on major content moderation issues—declared that Facebook’s post-Capitol insurrection ban of Trump could stand. “The Board found that the two posts by Mr. Trump on January 6 severely violated Facebook’s Community Standards and Instagram’s Community Guidelines,” wrote the FOB in its decision, arguing that Trump broke “rules prohibiting praise or support of people engaged in violence.” (Trump’s posts encouraged rioters to go home peacefully, but they also contained statements supporting their false grievances about a stolen election.)

FOB and its parent organization agree here, but perhaps nowhere else. Facebook initially declared its Trump ban temporary but indefinite, then asked the FOB to weigh in. The board on Wednesday excoriated that decision as a reflection of Facebook’s rudderless policies, and its members are not pleased at being used to run political interference for the company. “In applying a vague, standardless penalty and then referring this case to the Board to resolve, Facebook seeks to avoid its responsibilities,” declared the FOB. “The Board declines Facebook’s request and insists that Facebook apply and justify a defined penalty.”

Punting the decision back to company leadership, the FOB said that Facebook now has six months to decide what to do about Trump—and to get its policies together in the process. It’s a vital, long overdue request, and Facebook shows no sign of being able to fulfill it.

Meanwhile, Trump now has another six months to rile up his legions by painting Facebook as a leftist shill that silences conservatives. “Free speech has been taken away from the President of the United States because the Radical Left Lunatics are afraid of the truth, but the truth will come out anyway, bigger and stronger than ever before,” read a Trump statement distributed via email. “The People of Our Country will not stand for it! These corrupt social media companies must pay a political price, and must never again be allowed to destroy and decimate our Electoral Process.”

This messy, embarrassing result, which will satisfy few across the political spectrum, must come as a shock to Facebook. While the FOB had a respectable roster of academic and political luminaries, it was widely considered a rigged regulatory body that would, perhaps temporarily, pacify legislators and activists critical of Facebook policies. Instead, after issuing a few sober-minded decisions on lower-profile matters, the FOB has come out with surprising aggression, showing up its minders as blithe techies ignorant of the damage their platform causes.

Yet however silly Facebook ends up looking, the FOB decision still represents a qualified success for the company. The system—Facebook’s system—works. It just needs some clarity and fine-tuning. Facebook, which is used to riding from scandal to scandal, has six months to improve procedures and gauge the political weather vane, after which it can again declare itself a responsible steward of public conversation.

Facebook surely will remain undaunted in the wake of the board’s judgment. Time and again, the company has proven unable to reckon with its own scale and impact, as it recklessly pursues growth at all costs. This is especially true in certain foreign markets like Sri Lanka, India, and Myanmar, where Facebook has been manipulated by illiberal and authoritarian governments to spy on dissidents, propagandize, and provoke real violence. In his use of Facebook as a rallying tool for an aggrieved base capable of its own sudden acts of political violence, Trump has more in common, stylistically and strategically, with India’s Narendra Modi or Filipino President Rodrigo Duterte than with Germany’s Angela Merkel, who lamented Trump’s initial ban.

Facebook’s political utility and its runaway popularity have always outstripped its policies and its identity. While notionally liberal, it’s hard to say what Facebook stands for—even its supposed devotion to free speech has been watered down as something called “Voice.” The company has no firm public standards for how to deal with lying demagogic political leaders weaponizing its platform to intimidate opponents and manipulate supporters. It claims to have “human rights commitments,” including a Corporate Human Rights Policy based on United Nations standards, but the platform is a constant site of abuse. It probably should not be available in nondemocracies, which is to say nothing of its destabilizing effects on our own rickety political infrastructure.

“Facebook has become a virtually indispensable medium for political discourse, and especially so in election periods,” wrote the FOB. “It has a responsibility both to allow political expression and to avoid serious risks to other human rights.” Because it can be a tool for free expression and also one for spreading misinformation or political incitement, the board said, “Facebook’s human rights responsibilities must be understood in the light of those sometimes competing considerations.” In short, Facebook’s own values may be in conflict with one another, perhaps irreconcilably so.

There’s a deep reckoning to be had over how Facebook handles content moderation at scale, freedom of expression, and the outsize influence of certain politicians. The FOB’s decision wasn’t it. This necessary round of criticism will do nothing to solve Facebook’s core problems, which revolve around its business model, its profound dependence on surveillance, monetizing user behavior, and stoking division to boost engagement. The problem with Facebook is Facebook. We are well past the point of reform. All that remains is more bumbling, mealymouthed corporate decision-making that will only further enrage the left and right alike. Perhaps Trump’s stay of social media execution can somehow unite those political factions to take down Facebook, but more likely we’ll all be in the same place six months from now: yelling about Facebook’s obscene power, while the company ravenously accrues more of it.