Facebook’s suspension of Donald Trump will continue for now, the company announced yesterday. But it still has not resolved the central problem that Trump has created for social media platforms and, by extension, American democracy.
The problem is that Trump lies almost constantly. Unlike many other politicians — including other recent presidents, from both parties — he continues to make false statements even after other people have documented their falseness. This behavior undermines the healthy functioning of American democracy, particularly because Trump has such a large following.
His lies about the 2020 election are the clearest example. They have led tens of millions of people to believe a made-up story about how Joe Biden won. They have become a loyalty test within the Republican Party.
In Congress, Republicans are moving to oust Liz Cheney as one of their leaders after she said that people who repeated Trump’s “big lie” were “turning their back on the rule of law, and poisoning our democratic system.” In several states, Republican legislators are using Trump’s made-up story to justify new laws that make voting more difficult, especially in heavily Democratic areas. There is a direct connection between Trump’s lies about the election and the weakening of voting rights.
justified its suspension of Trump in January not based on his lies but instead on his incitement of violence, before and during the Jan. 6 attack on the Capitol by his supporters. Facebook continues to allow politicians to spread many falsehoods, saying it does not want to police truth. Distinguishing among truth, opinion and falsehood can indeed be tricky — but Trump’s claims about electoral theft are not a nuanced case.
The issue here isn’t the enduring philosophical question of what constitutes truth; it’s whether Facebook is willing to tolerate obvious and influential lies. So far, the company has decided that it is. It has drawn a line somewhere between blatant untruths and incitement to violence.
“Facebook’s approach to Trump’s attempts to undermine confidence in the integrity of the election was weak and ineffective,” Richard Hasen, a law professor at the University of California, Irvine, told me. When Trump last year falsely described mail-in voting as corrupt, for example, Facebook left up the post and instead added a link to a website where people could find general election information, as Hasen describes in his forthcoming book, “Cheap Speech.” Twitter, he notes, has taken a more aggressive position.
Yesterday’s decision officially came from a Facebook-appointed panel of speech experts that the company calls its Oversight Board. The board has no actual power to regulate the company, but it may have some influence on Facebook executives. In their statement, board members criticized Facebook for levying an indefinite suspension on Trump and said it should choose in the next six months between a permanent ban and a time-limited one: “In applying a vague, standardless penalty and then referring this case to the Board to resolve, Facebook seeks to avoid its responsibilities,” the board wrote.
points out in her latest newsletter). The board wrote:
… context matters when assessing issues of causality and the probability and imminence of harm. What is important is the degree of influence that a user has over other users. When posts by influential users pose a high probability of imminent harm, as assessed under international human rights standards, Facebook should take action to enforce its rules quickly.
That passage highlights the crux of the issue. Facebook has evidently decided that undermining the credibility of democratic elections does not violate international human rights standards. If it maintains that position, Trump may be back on Facebook six months from now.
What is the Facebook Oversight Board? Cecilia Kang has written an explainer, and Ben Smith has written a column.
The board’s message to Facebook’s C.E.O., Mark Zuckerberg: “This problem is yours,” Kevin Roose writes.
Nick Clegg, a former deputy prime minister in Britain, is steering the company’s response. Read a profile of him.
How the suspension has mattered: Politico’s Michael Kruse traveled to Ohio recently and was struck by how little many Republican voters knew about Trump’s recent comments.
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