This article is part of the On Tech newsletter. You can register here to receive it weekdays.
Facebook’s new “Supreme Court” is handling the biggest case: Donald Trump.
The company’s recent decision to suspend Mr. Trump’s account after he incited a crowd – to put it mildly – was controversial. On Thursday, the company asked its independent watchdog to review its decision and make a final call on whether the former president should be allowed to return to Facebook and Instagram, which the headquarters company Friendship or not.
Let me explain what this supervisory board will do, and some of its benefits and limitations:
An independent referee is good. To a point: Facebook in 2019 outlined plans for a court-like agency to reconsider the most famous situations where people assume that Facebook has erred in the application of anti-hate speech rules, inciting violence or other acts of abuse.
Many people, including Facebook CEO Mark Zuckerberg, are uncomfortable with the idea that Facebook has unquestionable power to silence world leaders and shape discourse online. The Board of Supervisors, whom Facebook’s decisions call binding, is an independent measure of accountability for website decisions.
Trump’s suspension is by far the biggest case for the watchdog, comprised of outside experts and has only chosen the first cases to consider. The ruling will be closely watched and will affect the legitimacy of this new Facebook justice measure.
(For a more in-depth reading, see this post by Evelyn Douek, a Law lecturer and SJD candidate at Harvard Law School, who studies regulation on online speech.)
Is it time to change policies for world leaders? The watchdog is also being asked to consider a question that goes beyond Mr. Trump: Should Facebook continue to give world leaders more comfort than the rest of us?
Both Facebook and Twitter allow top public authorities to post hateful or untrue facts that cause most of us to be blocked or deleted from our posts. The principle behind this is correct: What the world leaders say is an important issue for the general public and will be able to see and evaluate their views without filtering.
However, there are real-world trade-offs, when powerful people have a megaphone to detonate anything they want.
In Myanmar, military leaders used Facebook to incite genocide against the Muslim Rohingya minority. In India, a prominent politician has threatened to demolish mosques and call Muslims traitors in his Facebook posts. Iran’s Ayatollah Ali Khamenei called for the destruction of Israel on Twitter. And on social media sites, Trump and Philippine President Rodrigo Duterte alluded to the shooting of their own citizens.
Business & Economy
These world leaders can and often say the same things on television or in press statements, but when that happens there is often an opportunity for journalists to provide context and response.
Greg Bensinger, a member of the New York Times editorial board, recently argued that social media companies’ world-leading policy is out of date. If anything, there should be than He said instead less rules for world leaders on Facebook and Twitter.
What watchdog says about this question could re-establish an important global policy.
What about billions of others? Every year, Facebook creates Billion decide on people’s positions, but the supervisory board will only consider possibly dozens of high-level disputes.
The board is not going to help millions of people with far less power than Mr Trump, who have had to shut up over a decision Facebook made or failed.
This includes businesses and people who have Facebook accounts locked out and can’t get anyone at the company to notice. A teenager is harassed on Facebook and leaves the website without someone interfering on her behalf. And the Rohingya who are slaughtered in their homes cannot appeal to this council.
The board’s decision about Mr. Trump could influence the way online forums treat world leaders. But the fact remains that for most Facebook users, the company is the final and final word about what people can or can’t say. And Facebook faces less accountability for the consequences.