Donald Trump could be allowed back on Facebook pending a decision by the social media giant’s mysterious “Oversight Board”.
Facebook’s vice president of global affairs Nick Clegg announced the board would review the decision to suspend Mr Trump’s account following a riot at the US Capitol where Trump supporters stormed the building in an ultimately unsuccessful attempt to stop the certification of President Joe Biden’s election.
“We believe our decision was necessary and right. Given its significance, we think it is important for the board to review it and reach an independent judgment on whether it should be upheld,” Mr Clegg said.
Mr Clegg didn’t say when a decision would be made but said Facebook “hope, given the clear justification for our actions on January 7, that it will uphold the choices we made”.
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The point of the Oversight Board is ostensibly not to simply “uphold the choices” Facebook has made but to challenge and correct them when required, providing a watchdog for a company with more than 3 billion users whose founding CEO Mark Zuckerberg otherwise holds decision-making authority.
The Oversight Board has now accepted the referral and will examine Facebook’s decision to indefinitely suspend Mr Trump’s account, saying the board was founded “to address exactly the sort of highly consequential issues raised by this case”.
“Members will decide whether the content involved in this case violated Facebook’s Community Standards and values. They will also consider whether Facebook’s removal of the content respected international human rights standards, including on freedom of expression and other human rights,” the board said in its announcement.
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Mr Trump, Facebook, and “interested individuals and organisations” will be given a chance to submit public comments and “to share any insights and perspectives with the board that they believe will assist with making a decision”.
The Trump decision is the board’s most high-profile case so far and will likely be the biggest test of its processes and what it actually does.
Mr Zuckerberg announced the Oversight Board at the end of a 37-minute long speech in October 2019, where he spoke at length about how important it was for Facebook to not censor politicians.
He didn’t give much detail on what the board would do and many of the people who had tuned in for a livestream of the event had left by the time he announced it.
Attendants in the room for a Q&A session with Mr Zuckerberg were not allowed to ask about the Oversight Board he’d just announced because their questions had to be approved ahead of time.
A year after Mr Zuckerberg announced the board, it started accepting user appeals, with more than 20,000 cases quickly flooding in, of which it chose five (or less than 0.025 per cent).
A sixth case was referred by Facebook itself.
WHAT DOES THE OVERSIGHT BOARD DO?
In December, the board announced the first cases it would look at.
One of them – relating to the removal of a comment containing screenshots of two posts made on Twitter by Malaysian Prime Minister Dr Mahathir Mohamad saying, “Muslims have a right to be angry and kill millions of French people for the massacres of the past” – has already been wrapped up.
In that case, the person who made the original post the aggrieved user commented on deleted it – and by extension the user’s comment – thereby absolving Facebook of responsibility for the censorship.
A user who posted “two well-known photos of a deceased child lying fully clothed at the water’s edge” amid the Syrian refugee crisis had their post deleted for allegedly violating Facebook’s hate speech policy when they drew comparisons between reactions to the well-known image and reactions to China’s treatment of the Uighur Muslim minority.
The user appealed, arguing “the post was meant to disagree with people who think that the killer is right and to emphasise that human lives matter more than religious ideologies”.
A verdict is yet to be delivered.
Another user argued they were trying to “demonstrate the destruction of cultural and religious monuments” when they posted “alleged historical photos showing churches in Baku, Azerbaijan, with accompanying text stating that Baku was built by Armenians and asking where the churches have gone”.
Facebook said the user violated its hate speech policies and the board is yet to deliver a verdict.
Before Instagram updated its policies on “breast coverings” last year it removed a post from a Brazilian user who posted a picture attempting to raise awareness of potential breast cancer indicators that it said violated its “adult nudity and sexual activity” policies.
The user appealed as the post was part of a national campaign to prevent breast cancer and the board is yet to deliver a verdict.
A US user appealed after Facebook’s “On This Day” feature prompted them to reshare a post they’d already made two years earlier.
The post contained a quote attributed to Nazi propaganda master Joseph Goebbels that Facebook found a problem with only when it prompted the user to reshare it two years after it was posted, at which point it removed the post for violating its policies on “dangerous individuals and organisations” (the policies had been brought in and expanded during the intervening two years).
The user argued the quote was “important as the user considers the (Trump) presidency to be following a fascist model”.
Another case referred by Facebook related to COVID-19 misinformation that it said violated its “violence and incitement” policies.
Facebook “indicated to the Oversight Board that this case presents an example of the challenges faced when addressing the risk of offline harm that can be caused by misinformation about the COVID-19 pandemic”.
A verdict is yet to be delivered.
WHERE DOES TRUMP’S ONLINE EXILE END?
Regardless of whether Facebook’s Oversight Board restores his access to Facebook, other social media sites are unlikely to welcome Mr Trump back, including those who had the decision taken out of their hands.
Twitter, Mr Trump’s favoured platform throughout his presidency (except the last fortnight or so when he was banned from using it) has “permanently” rather than “indefinitely” suspended his account, and has no Oversight Board that could make it change its mind.
His account was deleted for violating the site’s policies on glorifying violence, with Twitter noting his continued presence on the site could incite further violence and “there are multiple indicators that they are being received and understood as encouragement to do so”.
Parler, where some predicted Mr Trump could turn and whose CEO John Matze alleges he wanted to go under an alias on the platform, was yanked offline when Amazon Web Services shut down its servers.
Google and Apple also removed the mobile apps, which were more widely used to access the platform.
Amazon announced the action ahead of time which gave people a chance to download more than 35TB of data from the servers, including videos from users inside the US Capitol building that is now being used to try and track them down.
A mysterious Russian tech company came to rescue the site, driving a giant proverbial wooden horse with plenty of room inside it to store all of Parler’s user data in a form where it could be readily accessed by Russian intelligence services.
There is a chance Mr Trump could emerge on far-right site Gab.
New Zealand’s Royal Commission into how an Australian terrorist massacred 51 worshippers at mosques in Christchurch and streamed it live on Facebook described Gab as a “hybrid of Twitter and Facebook” that was established in 2016 “in direct response to the removal of prominent far-right and right-wing extremist figures from major social media platforms”.
The report of that Commission also notes “one of the most notable changes in the right-wing extremist movement has been its movement from the streets to the internet”.
Mr Trump has also threatened to strike the same fear into the algorithmically beating hearts of social media companies that he’s previously delivered to the mail-order steak and university industries by starting his own Trump-branded rival.
In a tweet he posted on the @POTUS Twitter account that was recently transferred to Joe Biden, Mr Trump threatened to go it alone.
“We have been negotiating with various other sites, and will have a big announcement soon, while we also look at the possibilities of building out our own platform in the near future. We will not be SILENCED!” Mr Trump said, before Twitter deleted that post too.