To come up weeks, the Facebook Oversight Board will reign sure Donald Trump’s indefinite suspension of the platform. It will certainly be the Council’s most important decision to date. The specific decisions of the Council are binding on Facebook, and in this case, the move will likely go far beyond Trump and set a global precedent for the policies and enforcement actions the company takes in the future. The stakes could not be higher – not only for American democracy, but for countries around the world that have been and will be threatened by undemocratic political leaders. Like it or not, Facebook has a crucial role to play in safeguarding democracy. And the board’s decision will help determine whether the company can meet that responsibility or wash its hands of its democratic obligations.
Our decade of research into how politicians use social media has clearly shown that there is only one right way forward. In collaboration with researchers from UNC Center for Information, Technology and Public Life, we believe the board should uphold the Facebook ban on Trump’s account. The former president has clearly, repeatedly and blatantly violated Facebook’s community standards in his attempt to deny the American public the right to remove him from office. Banning Trump from the platform permanently would follow the company’s history of suspending users who repeatedly violate policies. More importantly, it would affirm Facebook’s responsibility to protect democracies across the world by taking a strong stand against phrases that undermine democratic accountability, especially free and fair elections.
At the most fundamental level, Trump’s use of Facebook has repeatedly violated company policies. While there is debate as to whether Trump directly instigated the coup attempt January 6 is the wrong question to focus on. The biggest and clearest violation of Facebook’s policies is the former president’s use of the platform to undermine free and fair elections – the essential democratic voice of the public. While Facebook’s commitment to “Expression is paramount,” its community standards have long (rightly) balanced this with the risk of harm, including threats to safety, dignity and electoral integrity. This includes society policies declared extended who protect what Mark Zuckerberg called the the voice of the public at the polls.
There is perhaps no more blatant attempt in recent U.S. history to silence the people than former President Trump’s campaign of lies about postal ballots, illegal vote, and electoral fraud and his claims that the election was “fraudulent” and “stolen”. Facebook Community Standards require evaluation both accounts and content, as well as “conditions” that provide context for what appears on the platform. In this case, the president’s electoral disinformation came in the context of his recognition of hate groups, non-condemnation of extrajudicial violence, and strive to ensure that federal agencies minimize threats of armed paramilitary groups.
Based on these facts alone, Facebook’s permanent suspension of Trump is more than justified. In fact, Facebook lack the application – until Jan. 7 – of its existing policies in the face of repeated Trump violations has been deeply problematic. For too long, the company erred in allowing Trump’s election misinformation because it argued that the public should be able to hear its leaders – the company “News” exemption. But Facebook should have been more consistent in applying its policies, or developing innovative solutions to proactively stave off the threats the president posed to the election, such as put your account late to find violations.
That said, it is essential that the Supervisory Board honor the fact that the company ultimately applied its policies in order to protect democracy. And while Facebook has finally acted in the United States, the failure to enforce its stated policies extends far beyond our borders. President Trump is not the only example of a world leader who has used facebook to undermine electoral accountability, delegitimize political opposition and subvert democratic institutions designed to control their power. Facebook needs to draw a bright red line in the face of attempts by any political leader, or those who attempt to become one, to undermine democratic processes, including institutions that represent the voice of the people, such as elections. We consider it promising that this week Facebook has taken action (late) in Myanmar, banning the army from its platforms following a military coup that overthrew the democratically elected government.