America’s former president Donald J Trump remains banned from Facebook and Instagram. That was the decision delivered by Facebook’s so-called Oversight Board which acts as a sort of “Supreme Court” for the platform. That decision is likely to have far-reaching consequences especially when it comes to how Facebook itself and other similar platforms are going to handle accounts held by governments including Zimbabwean official accounts.
Donald Trump ran a very controversial presidency during a troubling period when social media transitioned from being a useful tool to a dangerous weapon that could be wielded by those in power or with resources to devastating effect. He used his popular social media accounts to bully his foes and enemies and a lot of his posts were laced with malice, filled with hate and seasoned with lies.
Were he an ordinary user he would have been banned a long time ago. But he was no ordinary user. He was the 45th president of the United States and therein lay the puzzle that social media platforms had to grapple with. What do you do with such an account?
- You cannot just ban the president’s official account. A lot of stuff he ranted about often had a way of finding it into his official policies and executive orders. Muzzling his accounts, which now acted as early warning systems for whatever impending horrors he threatened to unleash, would mean people would be caught unawares.
- Not banning him off the platform legitimised the things he said and allowed him to continue to bully and threaten others on the platform. That would tacitly endorse the idea, not all social media users were equal. Some had their own set of rules and were free to do as they pleased.
- There was also real room for retaliation. Trump had the direct power of the presidency as well as the indirect power of the fawning Republican government behind him and he could retaliate in ways that could harm and destroy Facebook. He is not the type of guy to shy away from the controversial either.
Like headless chickens, Facebook and others simply made up the rules as they went. Some posts made by Trump would be removed while similar ones would stay up if shared by someone else. Others like Twitter created labels where they would label Tweets from the president as misleading even when they were downright egregious lies or overflowing with hate.
In other parts of the world like Zimbabwe Facebook stayed true to their money according to a document leaked and seen by the Guardian. They would aid and abet dictators and repressive regimes in different parts of the world including allowing posts from government officials there even when such posts violated U.S laws. Basically, it really depended on how powerful the government was and how much the American government cared about the policies in that country. For countries not on the U.S’s radar government officials in those countries were equally not censored.
How the Oversight Board’s decision changes things
As already said, we have seen the rise of nationalists, nativists and far-right politicians and government officials on social media and in real life. People like the Brazillian president Jair Bolsonaro mirror Donald Trump’s way of doing things. Even in Zimbabwe, we do have politicians and government officials who run official government accounts. A number of these are now well-prepped in the art of sharing “alternative facts”, bullying and often engage in the behaviour that got Trump into trouble with Facebook and virtually every other social media platform.
Like Trump’s accounts, these are not ordinary accounts. They are accounts of people in power and as much as we hate it, they need their own sets of rules separate from the rules that govern us, peasants. The Oversight Board had some pointers on what Facebook should do and other platforms would do well to heed its recommendations:
- First of all, Facebook was justified to ban Donald Trump. I personally think the platform should extend the ban to cover officials from other countries when they peddle falsehoods and disseminate hate speech.
- Facebook should be more transparent with its rules and decisions. For example, what are the red lines? What does an orange guy with a nuclear button on his desk have to do before he gets permanently banned from the platform? This one is important. Even though Trump was eventually banned it’s not clear what exactly he did to get banned in the end. After all, he had done so many ghastly things without anything happening to him so why at that point instead of before?
- Facebook and other social media platforms have a duty and responsibility to act. They must create clear and transparent rules as explained above but they must also not be afraid to act to enforce those rules. For example in the case of Trump, Facebook enforced an arbitrary ban and then shirked their duty on how to handle his case and other similar cases by passing on the decision to the Oversight Board. The board has simply reverted the decision back to Facebook. Although Trump remains banned, Facebook has 6 months to mull over his case and final fate on the platform. It’s their buck and it stops with them and them alone even if they are uncomfortable.
- The board seems to think accounts should be deleted in lieu of permanent bans. They think permanent bans are too harsh a punishment. I don’t agree with this, Donald Trump has been stirring trouble for decades and is not remorseful. People have already died and caused an insurrection in his name. A permanent ban is fitting. Lift the ban now and expect his first Facebook post to be a continuation of where he left off.
Where do we go from here?
Even Zuckerberg is frightened by the power his company wields which is why he created the Board and thus far, he and Facebook have zealously followed its recommendations. They will probably follow the latest recommendations as well. Expect to see Facebook try to create a numerous set of rules in order to govern how politicians, celebrities and government officials use the platform.
It is also probable that Facebook will for the first time create a set of rules for ordinary users as well. Although they do have terms and conditions that we must abide by, there is another internal/secret set of rules that is used to police content and usage of the platform. For example what exactly constitutes hate speech and what doesn’t. The company has always argued that publishing this information will allow would-be offenders to evade detection but the Board is clearly not convinced by this argument.
Here is to hoping that social media will become the place to meet family, friends, strangers and potential spouses like in the olden days. These days it’s a toxic dump filled with hate, polarisation, trolls and vitriolic exchanges with only a few flashes of the good it can be. We can get there but we are a long way from that Utopian goal. The Facebook Oversight Board’s recommendations will with any luck take us closer.