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Facebook's oversight board receives 'user statement' in Trump case

The social network indefinitely suspended Trump from its platform after the deadly Capitol Hill riot earlier this year.

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Facebook CEO Mark Zuckerberg testifies in October 2019.

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Facebook's content oversight board said Tuesday it received a "user statement" in a highly watched case that involves the social network's decision to indefinitely bar Donald Trump from posting to his account because of concerns the now-former president could incite violence like the Jan. 6 insurrection on Capitol Hill

"We can confirm that a user statement has been received in the case before the Oversight Board concerning President Trump's Facebook and Instagram accounts. We will have no further comment concerning that statement until the Board has issued its decision," a spokesperson for the oversight board said in an email. 

The spokesperson didn't immediately respond to questions about whether Trump submitted the statement or if it was written on his behalf. 

The board closed public comments for the Trump case on Feb. 12. Earlier this month, Dex Hunter-Torricke, the board's head of communications, said during a discussion hosted by the Carnegie Endowment for International Peace that the oversight board received at least 9,000 public comments about the Trump ban. 

"There are all sorts of actors and ordinary folks from around the world who have said this is something that I care about," Hunter-Torricke said.

The board asked the public for its views on a host of issues surrounding the suspension, including whether the decision meets with Facebook's "responsibilities to respect freedom of expression and human rights" and how the company should weigh potentially dangerous activity off of the social network when making its decisions. 

In an interview with The New Yorker, Facebook CEO Mark Zuckerberg said he thought the oversight board could hold Facebook accountable for its content decisions. "I don't see any path for the company ever getting out of the business of having to make these judgments," he said. "But I do think that we can have additional oversight and additional institutions involved." (The New Yorker article also reported that Trump called Zuckerberg to complain about the composition of the board. Facebook didn't change its members despite the pressure.) 

In January, Zuckerberg made the unprecedented decision to ban Trump a day after he whipped up supporters at a rally held as Congress was gathering to certify the election of Joe Biden as president. The risks of allowing Trump to continue posting were "simply too great," the Facebook boss said at the time.

Other social media networks, including Snapchat and Google-owned YouTube, have taken action against Trump to varying degrees. Twitter has permanently banned Trump from its platform. 

The oversight board review, which Facebook requested, follows the board's decisions on its first slate of cases, which involved hate speech, incitement of violence and other thorny topics. The board overturned four of Facebook's content moderation decisions, calling for posts to be restored. Earlier this month, the board overturned another decision by Facebook to remove a post for violating its rules against inciting violence. 

Read more: Here's how you can submit an appeal to Facebook's new oversight board.

Now playing: Watch this: Facebook getting an oversight board

Critics of Facebook, which was used by Russia to influence the 2016 presidential election, say it isn't taking its responsibility seriously enough and don't think the oversight board moves fast enough or goes far enough. A group of vocal critics has set up a shadow organization, which it calls the Real Facebook Oversight Board.

The group has been urging Facebook's oversight board to keep the Trump ban in place. "Overturning the Trump ban is an invitation to violence, hate and disinformation that will cost lives and undermine democracy. Don't strike the match," the group said in a Feb. 12 letter to the oversight board. 

Here's what you need to know about Facebook's oversight board:

Sounds like this board will have a lot of responsibility. What can it do?

Let's get something straight: The oversight board isn't going to do the same job as content moderators, who make decisions on whether individual posts to Facebook comply with the social network's rules. The board exists to support the "right to free expression" of Facebook's 2.8 billion users.  

The board functions a lot like a court, which isn't surprising given that a Harvard law professor came up with the idea. Users who believe content moderators have removed their posts improperly can appeal to the board for a second opinion. If the board sides with the user, Facebook must restore the post. Facebook can also refer cases to the board. 

The oversight board can also make suggestions for changes to Facebook's policies. Over time, those recommendations could affect what users are allowed to post, which could make content moderation easier. 

Why does Facebook need an oversight board in the first place? 

Facebook gets criticized by just about everybody for just about every decision it makes. Conservatives say the company -- and the rest of Silicon Valley -- is biased against their views. They point to bans of right-wing provocateurs Alex Jones and Milo Yiannopoulos to support their case. 

The social network doesn't get much love from progressives, either. They complain Facebook has become a toxic swamp of racist, sexist and misleading speech. In July, some progressive groups underlined their concerns by calling on companies not to advertise on Facebook and publicizing the boycott with the hashtag #StopHateForProfit.

The oversight board can help Facebook deal with those complaints while lending credibility to the social network's community standards, a code of conduct that prohibits hate speech, child nudity and a host of other offensive content. By letting an independent board guide decisions about this content, Facebook hopes it'll develop a more consistent application of its rules, which in the past have generated complaints for appearing arbitrary. 

One example: Facebook's 2016 removal of an iconic Vietnam War photo that shows a naked girl fleeing a napalm attack. The company defended the removal, saying the Pulitzer Prize winning image violated its rules on child nudity. It reversed its decision shortly afterward as global criticism mounted, prompting COO Sheryl Sandberg to apologize to Norway's prime minister. 

Got it. But why does Facebook need an independent organization? 

It's no secret that Facebook has a trust problem. Regulators, politicians and the public all question whether the decisions the company makes serve its users or itself. Making the board independent of Facebook should, the company reckons, give people confidence that its decisions are being made on the merits of the situation, not on the basis of the company's interests. 

OK. So who has Facebook chosen to be on this board?

Last year, Facebook named the first 20 members of the board, a lineup that includes former judges and current lawyers, as well as professors and journalists. It also includes a former prime minister and a Nobel Peace Prize winner. The board could eventually be expanded to 40 people.

The social network chose a diverse group. The members have lived in nearly 30 countries and speak almost as many languages. About a quarter come from the US and Canada.

At the time of the announcement, Helle Thorning-Schmidt, who served as Denmark's prime minister from 2011 to 2015, said one of the board's biggest advantages would be removing some of the content-moderation responsibility from Facebook itself. As it stands, she said, the decision-making is too centralized.

"Social media can spread speech that is hateful, deceitful and harmful," she said. "And until now, some of the most difficult decisions around content have been made by Facebook, and you could say ultimately by Mark Zuckerberg."

Serving on the board is a part-time job, with members paid through a multimillion-dollar trust. Board members will serve a three-year term. The board will have the power to select future members. It'll hear cases in panels of five members chosen at random. 

Trump and conservatives were unhappy with the makeup of the board, which they saw as too liberal, according to The New Yorker. The former president even called Zuckerberg to express this sentiment, but Facebook didn't change the board members, whom the company said were chosen based on their qualifications.

Wait a minute. Facebook is paying the board? Is it really independent?

If you're skeptical, we hear you. Facebook doesn't have a great reputation for transparency.

That said, the charter establishing the board provides details of the efforts Facebook is taking to ensure the board's independence. For example, the board isn't a subsidiary of Facebook; it's a separate entity with its own headquarters and staff. It maintains its own website (in 18 languages, if you count US and UK English separately) and its own Twitter account.

Still, when it comes to money, the board is indirectly funded by Facebook through the trust. Facebook is funding the trust to the tune of $130 million, which it estimates will cover years of expenses. 

Facebook says it'll abide by the board's decisions even in cases when it disagrees with a judgment. (The social network says the only exceptions would be decisions that would force it to violate the law, an unlikely occurrence given the legal background of many board members.)

The board will also try to keep Facebook accountable, publishing an annual report that'll include a review of Facebook's actions as a result of its decisions. 

"It'll be very embarrassing for Facebook," Thorning-Schmidt said, "if they don't live up to their end of this bargain."