Facebook's long promised but still barely operational Oversight Board — the group of global experts on civil rights, journalism, ethics, and other disciplines that will take charge of arbitrating the company's thorniest content moderation issues — is taking on the task of making a final ruling on whether Donald Trump should be allowed to still operate with impunity on the platform.
The Oversight Board used Twitter, ironically, to announce Thursday that it had been given the Trump case.
"The Board’s decision on this case will be binding on Facebook and determine whether Mr. Trump’s indefinite suspension from access to Facebook and Instagram is overturned," the Board tweeted. "Facebook has committed not to restore access to its platforms unless directed by a decision of the Board."
Noting that this case "is important for people in the US, and around the world," the Board is going to be asking for public comment to help it in making its decision. Anyone interested in offering comment can sign up here, and you will be alerted when the comment line has opened up, so to speak.
Tech writer Casey Newton (formerly of The Verge, now writing the Platformer newsletter) notes that Trump will be allowed to submit a statement on his own behalf, as part of the process. And, the panel making the decision on whether to ever give Trump his account back will be randomly assigned, and only one of the five people on the panel is required to be American.
"Trump’s fate could be decided by four people from other countries," Newton writes on Twitter.
Another consideration: only one of the five board members randomly assigned to this panel is required to be American. Trump’s fate could be decided by four people from other countries— Casey Newton (@CaseyNewton) January 21, 2021
This is the first high-profile case to come before the newly seated Oversight Board, and how this plays out should be telling for the board's longevity and effectiveness.
Facebook first announced the formation of the board in 2019, saying that it was committing $130 million to the project. Zuckerberg had first floated the idea earlier saying that neither he nor anyone else at the company ought to be responsible for making difficult decisions about what should or shouldn't be allowed on the platform, so they needed a "Supreme Court of Facebook" to play that role.
Last spring, we finally learned who had been selected for the 20-member board, and it is, as promised, a cross-section of experts from around the world with preference given to people "who have demonstrated a proficiency in questions of online content moderation and a history of working with others on difficult problems towards a common goal," the board's website states.
"Social media platforms allow people around the world to connect," the board's official statement reads. "While this creates many opportunities to unite, it also allows us to see things that divide. As outside experts and civic leaders, we embrace our responsibility to answer some of the most difficult questions around freedom of expression online: what to take down, what to leave up, and why."
In December, the Oversight Board announced its first batch of cases selected from 20,000 that were referred to them last October. The Trump case, though, is going to be the one that gets the most media attention.
Many pundits have said in recent weeks that they are not comfortable with the Mark Zuckerbergs and Jack Dorseys of this world getting to decide who does and who doesn't have a voice on their platforms, which have grown to become important arenas for speech in many countries. By handing the Trump dilemma off to the new Oversight Board, Facebook should, semi-effectively, be able to deflect some of that criticism which will continue to come from Republicans and Trump loyalists.
But will Trump or anyone who has bought his bag of lies ever really be satisfied with an answer on content moderation coming from any entity associated with Big Tech? Will any of them really believe or care that this Oversight Board is wholly independent and not just another department at Facebook? Will they ever see Trump as anything other than a victim of liberal censorship and bias? Perhaps not.
But if these questions ever land in court, at least Facebook now has some cover. You can't say as much for Twitter.
Photo: Joshua Hoehne