Once again, we’re being reminded of just how much power Facebook wields when it comes to the public discourse. On Wednesday, Facebook's own independent oversight board ruled that the company can continue to block former U.S. President Donald Trump from its platform. But the court-like panel also stated that Facebook must review the decision within six months. This peculiar process has frustrated many who feel that the platform has continuously failed to regulate how politicians like Trump can influence mass audiences with lies and conspiracies. It begs the question: How does Facebook still have this much control?
Facebook released a statement responding to the decision, saying that it believed suspending Trump’s account following the violent insurrection in Washington, D.C., in January was necessary. “We’re pleased the board has recognised that the unprecedented circumstances justified the exceptional measure we took,” reads the statement, released by Nick Clegg, VP of Global Affairs and Communications. He noted that the board did not specify what it thought was an appropriate duration for the suspension. Rather, it put the decision back in the hands of Facebook. “The board criticised the open-ended nature of the suspension, calling it an ‘indeterminate and standardless penalty,’” Clegg continued.
In the meantime, Trump’s accounts will remain suspended while Facebook revisits the decision. The decision also applies to Instagram, which is owned by Facebook. Across both platforms, Trump had nearly 60 million followers before his accounts were suspended “indefinitely.”
The independent board, which is made up of a panel of around 20 former political leaders, journalists, and human rights activists, was assembled about a year ago for the purpose of deliberating the company’s content decisions. According to The New York Times, the idea was conceived by Facebook’s chief executive Mark Zuckerberg, who wanted the independent body to act like a Supreme Court so that the public could have a way to appeal decisions made by the company when removing content that violates its policies. At the time, Zuckerberg said that neither he nor the company wanted to have the final say on speech.
According to CNN, the board could have made the decision itself. But in choosing to put the choice back in the hands of Facebook, it once again reminded the public of Zuckerberg’s powerful role in influencing not just public discourse, but political movements. It also reminds us of just how arbitrary the social media platform’s moderation decisions can be.
There are two concurrent issues here: the purposeful manipulation of social media platforms to spread misinformation and the companies’ reactive approach to addressing it.
Trump, like other politicians, invested major funding in running ad campaigns and using Facebook as a platform to spread misinformation for the furthering of his own personal agendas. One of many examples of Trump and his campaign being allowed to say whatever they wanted on Facebook with no consequence occurred last June. Organisations like PolitiFact and the Associated Press, part of Facebook’s independent network for weeding out falsehoods on the platform, unanimously found Trump’s claims that now-U.S. President Joe Biden wanted to “defund” police forces to be false, yet they continued to run freely on Facebook without any kind of warning or label because the platform specifically exempts politicians from its rules against deception.
So far, platforms like Facebook have taken a reactive stance to combat this rampant spread of false information. Like our judicial system, they often wait for acts to be committed before making a plan for how to respond, but by then, significant damage has been done. In the case of Trump, lies about the election, the COVID-19 pandemic, and his opponents spread far beyond Facebook’s ability to control them before the company came out with a plan of action.
And it's almost impossible to make Facebook act quickly. Facebook, despite being old news in terms of zeitgeisty social platforms, retains a monopolistic hold on the dissemination of information. So much so that the Federal Trade Commission filed a groundbreaking antitrust lawsuit against the company seeking to break it up for manipulative and exploitative practices. More than 40 states have joined in accusing the company of buying up its rivals in an attempt to illegally squash competition. With this artificially heightened position of influence, Facebook isn’t forced to hold politicians like Trump accountable for fear of being left behind by more fast-acting competitors. As a result, its inaction has been felt more deeply.
Leading up to the U.S. presidential election, Facebook shrugged off pressure from Congress by saying it would continue to allow political campaigns to use the site to push targeted advertisements to the electorate while refusing to strictly review the actual messages being sent out. Meanwhile, other social media behemoths like Twitter and Google responded by either banning political advertising or considerably limiting it.
What does this mean for the future of fact-checking and the truth? Until we can address the monopoly of social media platforms, large companies like Facebook will be able to carry on with little recourse because their position of influence will remain unchallenged. They are enabled to act slowly because no one is threatening to leave them behind. Without alternatives and accountability, Facebook will continue to be in a position of power, both politically and socially — full stop.