Trump on Wednesday lashed out at three of the biggest tech giants after Facebook’s quasi-independent Oversight Board upheld the social media platform’s ban on him.
"What Facebook, Twitter, and Google have done is a total disgrace and an embarrassment to our Country,” Trump said in a statement.
“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,” he continued. “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.”
It is a good thing the ban was kept on… Had Trump been reinstated, his Facebook feed would most likely have featured familiar menu items: self-regard, pitches for money and his business, darts aimed at critics, misinformation, and appeals to bigotry, racism, and other bile. He would have also occasionally encouraged his most dedicated followers to rise up and demand what’s theirs.
Trump loyalists and free-speech purists will certainly savage the board’s ruling. The loyalists, who are still playing down the events of Jan. 6 while embracing Trump’s big lie that the 2020 election was stolen, are the easiest to dismiss. Suppressing Trump, they argue, is evidence of their favorite myth — so-called cancel culture. Facebook has it out for them. In the real world, far-right outlets that engage in the heaviest flame-throwing, such as the Daily Wire and Fox News, continue to enjoy the greatest engagement on Facebook.
There’s more nuance — and philosophic trapdoors — on the free-speech side of the ledger. Yet where Trump resides in that world is clear, too. Our laws protect vigorous reporting and intense scrutiny of public figures while limiting, for example, protection for certain obscenities and for “fighting words.” And by fighting words, the courts have meant the kind that instill or incite hatred or violence. Has any public figure of the modern era in the U.S. deployed fighting words to such disastrous effect as Trump? Free speech is a contingent right, and Trump’s desire to incentivize his gladiators doesn’t outrank democracy, tolerance, personal and public safety, and other virtues.
The Oversight Board’s ruling is consistent with how the courts weigh rights to speech against calls to violence. If the board had given Trump a second chance, it also would have been a reminder of how poorly Facebook has policed its ubiquitous platform and how much the board appears to be a well-meaning and lushly funded fig leaf.
Trump’s proclivity for violence didn’t suddenly emerge on Jan. 6, after all. He reveled in promoting violence during rallies as a presidential candidate in 2016, and violence followed. He refused to initially condemn white nationalist violence in Charlottesville, Virginia, in 2017; blamed the media after one of his supporters sent pipe bombs to prominent Democrats and news organizations in 2018; and suggested shooting undocumented migrants at the U.S. border in 2019. Last year, amid the Covid-19 outbreak, he encouraged protesters to march against state governments mandating lockdowns; armed protesters followed suit in Lansing, Michigan. He and his campaign encouraged his “army” to take to the streets before the November election last year.
Facebook and its founder, Mark Zuckerberg, equivocated about all of this. It wasn’t until Trump told his supporters to “fight like hell” on Jan. 6, and they went on to break into the Capitol, that Facebook took action and barred him. And then it deferred to its Oversight Board on the next steps.
But the Oversight Board’s mandate is narrow (my Bloomberg Opinion colleague Noah Feldman, who is a Harvard Law School professor, helped design it). It has operational independence and a generous budget of its own, but it can rule only on whether a small portion of the tsunami of content produced on Facebook violates the company’s standards.
That might be a step in the right direction if Facebook only published content. The company does much more than that, of course. It runs a machine that encourages intense engagement among its users, and its algorithms then help highly engaging content to take flight. An outside body that only monitors a fragment of problematic cases but isn’t empowered to examine and challenge how Facebook circulates and amplifies vitriol that helps foster sprawling communities of conspiracy theorists or disseminate disinformation is merely a placeholder — and not, as Facebook would have it, a countervailing force.
I imagine that Zuckerberg would never have allowed the Oversight Board to exist if it had been constituted to be more effective. Because Facebook’s business model — the one it sells so profitably to advertisers — is built on engagement, it has shied away from pulling the plug on some of its most engaging content. An internal study it commissioned reported in 2018 that Facebook exacerbated tribalism and division among its users — behaviors that boost engagement. Facebook buried the study.