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Facebook's oversight board made the right call on Trump. Now it's Zuckerberg's turn

Commentary: The social media company's inconsistent approach to its policies created an untenable situation. The oversight board is pushing for a fix.

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Facebook's oversight board faced an untenable situation.

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With a dozen words, Facebook's oversight board made one of its most consequential decisions after agreeing with CEO Mark Zuckerberg's decision to ban then-President Donald Trump for inciting the Jan. 6 insurrection in Washington. Facebook acted after a mob of Trump's supporters attacked and ransacked the US Capitol to disrupt the certification of an election he'd lost. That day, Trump posted a message telling his supporters in DC, "We love you, you're very special," and restating lies that he'd won the presidential election.

The 20 members of the quasi-independent board, experts in free expression, human rights and journalism, agreed that the threat of imminent harm required a temporary silencing of the world's most powerful and influential person.

"The Board has upheld Facebook's decision on January 7, 2021, to restrict then-President Donald Trump's access to posting content on his Facebook page and Instagram account," the board wrote on Wednesday. It then added these 12 words that I think will likely go down as one of the most importation decisions of the modern age:

"However, it was not appropriate for Facebook to impose an 'indefinite' suspension."  

It's a call I agree with. Because the lack of specific standards for engaging on Facebook, the world's most popular social network, with 2.8 billion members, isn't about Trump. It's about the next Trump.

The very idea that an unelected, 36-year-old tech billionaire and social media mogul has any right to unilaterally muzzle the president of the United States "indefinitely" is absurd. Of course Zuckerberg shouldn't have that power, nor should any of us. Aside from Congress or the cabinet taking action as outlined in the Constitution, the president is the president when sworn in as the president.

The board wants consistency, fairness and transparency -- what any rational person would expect. I certainly do. And with nearly a third of the global population using Facebook's platform every month, I'm thankful the board is forcing Zuckerberg and his executives to be clear about the social network's policies and to take responsibility for the calls it makes about posts on its service.

"It is not permissible for Facebook to keep a user off the platform for an undefined period, with no criteria for when or whether the account will be restored," the board added after meeting, discussing and reviewing over 9,000 public comments about the Trump situation. "In applying a vague, standardless penalty and then referring this case to the Board to resolve, Facebook seeks to avoid its responsibilities. The Board declines Facebook's request and insists that Facebook apply and justify a defined penalty."

Facebook said in a blog post that it would review the decision and find a "clear and proportionate" action. Trump will remain suspended in the meantime.

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Trump supporters organized their assault on social media.

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Finally, accountability

On Jan. 6, we saw the danger that social media poses to the world in its most ugly display. We saw the US Capitol, the home and symbol of American democracy, ransacked by an angry mob of Trump's supporters after being urged to "walk down to the Capitol" and "fight like hell [or] you're not going to have a country anymore." As they tore through the building, vandalizing offices, erecting a hangman's noose on the front steps and replacing American flags with ones from Trump's campaign, rioters and looters called for the murder of then-Vice President Mike Pence and Speaker of the House Nancy Pelosi. They sprayed a police officer with bear mace (later, he was one of the five people who died in connection with the riot). The rioters beat another officer with a pole wrapped in an American flag. 

Many of the rioters had planned their attack on Facebook and celebrated their violence by posting updates from inside the Capitol. Investigators for the District of Columbia have charged about 400 people in connection with the Capitol siege, according to the BBC.

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People from many of the internet's ugliest corners participated in the assault.

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Amid the chaos, Trump, 74, published a video address form the White House telling the protesters he loved them and knew their pain. "Remember this day forever!" Trump also posted. 

I certainly will.

The oversight board, which began hearing cases in October 2020, two years after it was first announced, had a nearly impossible task on its hands when it took up the case of whether to uphold Facebook's unilateral ban of the then-most powerful person in the world. 

Holding Facebook accountable for failing to fairly make that call is, in and of itself, the right call here.

The next step will be just as important. Facebook has six months to explain itself, and to create a post hoc process it can apply the next time a Donald Trump -- that is, a leading politician who uses the platform to spread objectively false information -- comes along. (Arguably, that's already happened many times, including in 2017 during the genocide in Myanmar. The UN said Facebook played a "determining role" in fueling the tragedy.)

Everyone, unhappy

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Me, when thinking about Facebook, Twitter and YouTube.

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If there's one thing we know about governments of the people, by the people and for the people, it's that they're messy.

Facebook, Twitter and YouTube have failed, embarrassingly and often, to uphold their duties as stewards of the largest social media platforms on the globe. I've advocated that the US government force tech companies to cope with the problem, and I agree with many people that existing laws can be reformed to use a cudgel to force social media companies to appropriately moderate content on their platforms. Twitter imposed a lifetime ban on Trump on Jan. 8, while YouTube said in March that it will reverse its ban on the former president when "the risk of violence has decreased."

But many people are frustrated that, in the meantime, Facebook's oversight board didn't make a decision for the company.

"Facebook's failure to control this content to begin with, and the overwhelming volume of dangerous content that remains on the platform show the inadequacy of the Oversight Board," wrote The Real Facebook Oversight Board, a protest organization created by internet advocates critical of Facebook's failures and attempts to avoid responsibility for them, after the Trump decision was published Wednesday. "Don't be fooled -- Facebook wants a gold star."

It's important that Facebook get this right, and that YouTube and Twitter follow its example. And not just because people like me want them to step up. Dictators around the world are using their platforms in far more dangerous ways than Trump did, stoking violence and worsening divisions in India, the Philippines and Brazil.

Trump may very well end up back on Facebook as a result of all this, and in the meantime, his supporters can repost the comments he releases on his new blog to Facebook and Twitter. But that isn't the point. What matters is that whatever Facebook does, it be consistent, transparent and fair.

The oversight board did its part with the 12 words that held Facebook accountable. And it was right.