Facebook Oversight Board’s Trump Decision Is a Circus



The board itself teased the decision in this case, first promising on April 16 that its answer would be revealed at some point “in the coming weeks,” then saying that the ruling would drop on May 5, at “approximately” 9 a.m. On Monday, when the board finally released its final decision about when it would release its final decision about Trump, the Aspen Institute announced that registration was now open for a thrilling webinar, “Deplatforming Trump: The Facebook Oversight Board Decision,” to be held tomorrow with actual members of the board. This will be their “first LIVE public appearance.” When I asked Vivian Schiller, the executive director of Aspen Digital, the program that is hosting the webinar, how many attendees she was expecting, she wouldn’t guess, but joked that, given the importance of the moment, the event would be huge. “Think Super Bowl,” she said.

Trump decision week! It’s like Shark Week, but less scenic. Now that Facebook has been granted half a year to explain to the board whether it really meant to ban Trump forever, the event is ongoing. This is new and this is bizarre. There is plenty to consider in the oversight board’s list of recommendations for reform at Facebook—as there has been in several of its previous decisions. But we might also consider what it means that individual content-moderation decisions are now media spectacles. “Here we are in 2021 and the biggest judgment coming down the pike in the news cycle is one from Facebook’s made-up court,” remarked Sarah T. Roberts, an assistant information-studies professor at UCLA who researches content moderation, when we spoke yesterday. “That’s weird.”

In January, following his encouragement of the violent insurrection at the U.S. Capitol, Trump was deplatformed from essentially every major social-media site he had ever used. At the time, liberals rejoiced and prominent conservatives cried censorship, while free-speech experts expressed tepid, sometimes worried support. On the day of Joe Biden’s inauguration, Facebook’s vice president of global affairs, Nick Clegg, announced on the company blog that the matter of Trump’s indefinite suspension would be referred to the oversight board.

The board could decide whether Facebook’s decision was justified, Clegg wrote. It could also offer thoughts on how the suspension of world leaders should be handled in Facebook’s policies. “We believe our decision was necessary and right,” yet, on account of its “significance,” the company believed it was a good candidate for review by “the first body of its kind in the world: an expert-led independent organization with the power to impose binding decisions on a private social media company.”

Thought leaders of various stripes offered public comment to the board, including a handful of House Republicans who wrote a letter about censorship of “conservative viewpoints” but did not actually state whether they believed Trump should be allowed back on Facebook. And in February, the board said that Trump had submitted a statement on his own behalf. (That statement, excerpted in the board’s decision, is uncharacteristically dry. It asks for Trump’s account to be restored and claims that “all genuine Trump political supporters” who attended the Capitol riot “were law-abiding.”) The oversight board received 9,666 comments in all—a dramatic number, compared with its previous record of 35—and cited the need to read them all when pushing back its deadline for making a decision. Many of the comments have been published in an 8,599-page PDF.


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