Trump ban: Here is what Facebook’s real problem is

On Wednesday morning, Facebook’s oversight board upheld the platform’s suspension of Donald Trump but punted on a long-term solution for the former president’s account. In its decision, the board scolded Facebook for its “indeterminate and standardless penalty of indefinite suspension” of Trump and pushed the platform to review the matter and make a decision that can be applied to all violating users within six months.

The board’s true role inside Facebook has always been up for interpretation. Facebook CEO Mark Zuckerberg has framed it publicly as a check on his — and his company’s — power over political discourse. Slightly more cynical observers argue that Zuckerberg and Facebook are avoiding accountability by foisting tough choices on an ostensibly independent deliberative body. Regardless of where you come down on the issue, it’s clear that the institution doesn’t solve the fundamental problem of Facebook’s incredible influence over public discourse. Any decision that comes from this oversight process only serves to legitimise the platform’s primacy and power. As The Atlantic’s Adam Serwer noted in a tweet after the decision, “the fact that verdicts from the Supreme Court of Facebook are national news seems real bad.” Serwer is right. The board’s decision is little more than a reminder that Facebook wields the kind of power often reserved for nation states.

In that regard, the board’s decision presents Facebook with a real opportunity, an opportunity it probably will not take seriously. Facebook could use the ruling to rethink which of the platform’s features, in the hands of Trump, probably will lead to real harm for users — such as the ability to post frictionlessly without review and the ability to run advertisements littered with lies — and disable those while keeping others intact. The results would be more nuanced than simply deplatforming a world leader. It might also force Facebook to confront the ways that its platform gives a natural advantage to its worst users.

Such an approach would, however, require real accountability and systemic change from Facebook, a company that has long shied away from self-critical introspection. That is precisely why the platform and its oversight board seem destined to disappoint when it comes to Trump. Ultimately, the underlying conditions that made him so dangerous on the platform remain in place, and the company shows little interest in allaying them. By focusing exclusively on whether Trump should have a platform on Facebook, we’re ignoring the ways in which he (and others) use the platform to target voters, raise money and spread the kind of vitriolic lies that create the conditions for real-world events such as the Jan. 6 insurrection. The deplatforming discussion lacks nuance and doesn’t, for example, address the ways in which Facebook’s newsworthiness loophole allowed Trump to behave irresponsibly on the platform — the same behaviour for which Facebook banned him.

As Shoshana Zuboff, author of “The Age of Surveillance Capitalism,” noted shortly after Wednesday’s decision, the oversight board’s spectacle causes us to look at smaller, ornamental downstream issues with the platform — which individuals get to be on and what they have to do before they get booted for good. “Every time we do that, we are asserting the legitimacy of what happens upstream,” she said on a live stream. “What happens upstream is the illegitimate extraction of human-generated data and the redefining of that data as the private property of corporations.” Zuboff is really saying that Facebook’s biggest issues have less to do with specific individual users than the company’s architecture and the ways that its business models (which heavily rely on data collection) provide politicians such as Trump with powerful tools to deceive and manipulate voters.

Trump’s presence on Facebook matters, but it matters far less than a true public reckoning by the company as to why it’s the primary choice for world leaders looking to subvert democratic norms. That’s the kind of accountability we need to see from Facebook, and it’s what the oversight board is calling for. But the company is under no obligation to engage in any truth and reconciliation commissions.

Disliking Facebook is the rare issue with bipartisan support. While both sides disagree on the particulars, the overarching reason for their ire is simple: The company has far too much power. Its influence is so great that we have trouble adequately describing its effects on our culture and our politics. Indeed, some of the damage it has wrought is embedded in the debates around it, such as the way it has inspired some to confuse freedom of speech with freedom of algorithmic reach. Nothing about Wednesday’s decision or the presence of the oversight board seems to address this pain point. If anything, it only bolsters the platform’s legitimacy.

Historically, Facebook views its power to connect the world as a “de facto good.” When you believe your product will ultimately lead to a better world, it clouds your judgement. In Facebook’s case it has led the company to believe that the solution to its myriad problems is, well, more Facebook. This strategy worked for a time, but the company’s standard fix starts to look craven as it becomes increasingly clear that the platform destabilises everything it touches. No amount of fancy, independent deliberating can disguise it. Facebook’s problem isn’t Trump, it’s Facebook. Until Zuckerberg and company grapple with that reality, they’re guaranteed to disappoint.

Charlie Warzel is a noted journalist and columnist

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