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Small respite for Facebook as left and right slam ruling on Trump ban

Republicans call it censorship by Big Tech; Democrats say company should do more to curb disinformation

Facebook CEO Mark Zuckerberg arrives to testify before Congress in October 2019.
Facebook CEO Mark Zuckerberg arrives to testify before Congress in October 2019. (Bill Clark/CQ Roll Call file photo)

The decision by the Facebook oversight board to uphold the social media platform’s suspension of former President Donald Trump won plaudits from just about nobody. And it put Facebook, which had sought to distance itself from the saga by referring the suspension to its review board in the first place, squarely within the sights of Washington partisans.

That’s because the decision Wednesday came with a caveat. By suspending Trump indefinitely after the Jan. 6 riot at the Capitol, the board said Facebook violated its own policies. The suspension was within Facebook’s purview, the board ruled, but it cannot stand indefinitely because Facebook’s policies don’t allow for it.

As a result, the oversight board, comprising academics and legal experts and marketed by Facebook as an independent arbiter of the company’s content moderation decisions, punted. It gave Facebook six months to make a final ruling on Trump’s account, meaning the former president could be back on the platform by the end of the year.

“In applying a vague, standardless penalty and then referring this case to the Board to resolve, Facebook seeks to avoid its responsibilities,” the board said. “The Board declines Facebook’s request and insists that Facebook apply and justify a defined penalty.”

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Predictably, Republicans were outraged by the decision. They called it censorship by Big Tech. Washington Rep. Cathy McMorris Rodgers, the top Republican on the Energy and Commerce Committee, which has jurisdiction over Facebook, called it “Orwellian.”

“An oversight board that operated behind closed doors for months and whose decision makers remain secret clearly has no interest in providing accountability over Big Tech’s abuse of power that undermines free speech,” she said in a statement.

Utah Sen. Mike Lee , the top Republican on the Judiciary antitrust subcommittee, said it was “more clear than ever that Facebook views itself as a gatekeeper of ideas.”

[Facebook oversight board upholds Trump ban, but opens door to his return]

But Democrats were none too pleased either. Of course, they said, the oversight board had ruled correctly in upholding the suspension. But by passing off final judgment to Facebook itself, it had abdicated its responsibility, placing it with decision-makers that many Democrats have already written off as untrustworthy and motivated solely by profit.

“The decision by Facebook’s self-funded panel upholds a minimal marker for truth and decency,” Connecticut Sen. Richard Blumenthal, one of the company’s chief Democratic critics, said in a statement. “Facebook must now decide what it values more: profits or holding Donald Trump accountable for espousing hate, disinformation and violence.”

Sen. Elizabeth Warren, D-Mass., an antitrust hawk who has called for Facebook to be broken up, accused it of running a “disinformation-for-profit machine,” saying the company “won’t accept responsibility for its role in the safety of our democracy and people.”

“Trump should be banned for good, but Facebook will continue to fumble with its power until Congress and antitrust regulators rein in Big Tech,” Warren said in a tweet.

Off Capitol Hill, much of the reaction to the decision focused on the oversight board itself.

Left-leaning groups suggested the board has little real power, and far too little to stand as a bulwark against the company’s long-standing content moderation issues.

“Mark Zuckerberg designed the company’s content-moderation efforts to be dysfunctional,” said Jessica J. González, co-CEO of Free Press, a nonprofit that takes no money from political parties or corporations but wants to limit Big Tech companies. “The oversight board is little more than an extension of that, a PR exercise. There’s little it can do to disrupt a business model that — with or without Trump — will continue to earn revenues by engaging people in hate and disinformation.”

David Segal, executive director of the Demand Progress Education Fund, a nonprofit that advocates an internet free of government and corporate interference, called the board a “sham” designed to give the impression that Facebook has a means for cracking down on harmful content on its platform.

“To the extent anyone focuses on what the Facebook ‘Oversight’ Board says and not what they are — a mechanism to distract attention from and provide credibility to Facebook — we give Facebook a pass for its unfair and dangerous monopolistic practice,” Segal said.

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Conservative groups also piled on.

“No one company should have the power to effectively block a president from communicating with the American people,” Mike Davis, president of the Internet Accountability Project, said in a statement. Davis was a longtime staffer for Sen. Charles E. Grassley, R-Iowa and worked for Supreme Court Justice Neil M. Gorsuch. “This Oversight Board must be recognized as the farce that it is — it is clearly not a sustainable model for political debate and communication in this country,” he said.

Not every reaction was negative, however, although the loudest praise came from close to home. Daniel Castro, vice president of the Information Technology and Innovation Foundation, a nonpartisan think tank with close ties to Silicon Valley, called the oversight board “the most open and transparent adjudication process available to social media users.”

“Reasonable people can and will continue to disagree about what content should be allowed on these platforms and when users have violated the rules,” Castro said in a statement. “Facebook’s original decision to ban President Trump from its platform was highly polarizing, so it is no surprise that the decision announced today is drawing both praise and objections.”

Castro added: “With 2.8 billion users, no decision Facebook makes will ever make everyone happy.”

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