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What Facebook's done to Trump now
Let's parse the former president's two-year time-out.
The back-and-forth between Facebook and its Oversight Board can feel like watching someone debate their imaginary friend to whom they’ve giving power of attorney. But it’s an actual big deal this week, as Facebook decided to respond to the board’s criticisms of its ban on former President Trump by blocking him from the platform for two full years. Facebook’s slowly, painfully, awkwardly, but somewhat inarguably creating an architecture for dealing with politicians, as it decides that some politicians aren’t worth the bother.
Back in May, the Oversight Board, you might recall, dinged Facebook over banning Trump with no end in sight. It didn’t quibble with removing Trump, but argued that how Facebook went about it was still a shoddy kind of justice. You can’t, the board concluded, not tell users how long they’ve been banned and what they can do to bring the ban to a close.
And so, this week, Facebook itself issued a ruling. It would indeed create a “time-bound” penalty for Trump: two years from the day he was first banned, January 7th, 2021 — the day after the invasion of the U.S. Capitol.
What happens after the two years? Not automatic reinstatement, no no. Facebook will re-evaluate to see if “there is still a serious risk to public safety,” and if so, “will extend the restriction for a set period of time and continue to re-evaluate until that risk has receded.”
But if they decide that Trump’s okay to get back on? “There will be a strict set of rapidly escalating sanctions that will be triggered if Mr. Trump commits further violations in future, up to and including permanent removal of his pages and accounts.”
The move prompted interesting analysis of what, in practice, it’ll all amount to.
HOW WILL WE KNOW ANY THREAT’S PASSED?
The headline on Facebook’s statement is sure to include that Trump “Will Only Be Reinstated if Conditions Permit.” But Charlie Warzel wonders how that works. How you evaluate whether Trump on Facebook remains a threat to public safety if Trump isn’t on Facebook?:
“This logic strikes me as either weird or impossible or both. If Donald Trump’s posts and general rhetoric helped create the conditions for civil unrest or violence and removing him deescalates that threat, how exactly does one evaluate the risk to public safety in the moments before reinstating him? Put another way: if Donald Trump posting is the risk to public safety, how do you evaluate the risk to public safety in an environment you’ve removed him from?”
One thing here, though, is that we’re continually running an experiment on just this point.
The New York Times’ Davey Alba, Ella Koeze and Jacob Silver had a fairly remarkable look Monday at how what Trump says still often gets huge traction online despite him personally being banned from Twitter and Facebook. He doesn’t need to be on Facebook to shape how people are engaging in politics there.
The question for Facebook becomes, is Trump dangerous enough with indirect access to Facebook that a Trump with direct access to Facebook would be intolerably so?
WHAT IF BY 2023 NO ONE CARES ABOUT TRUMP?
A key factor here is whether Trump’s still a powerful political figure by the time the two-year suspension is up, or if instead he’s just a former president quietly playing golf down in Florida. At this point, Trump’s political fate is what Donald Rumsfeld might call a known unknown. But if Trump is a diminished political figure when the two years are up, Facebook could decide that his words no longer matter enough to ban, an idea that’s touched on in this AP story by Barbara Ortutay:
“‘It’s the wait-and-see approach,’ said Sarah Kreps, a Cornell professor and director of the Cornell Tech Policy Lab. ‘I think they’re hoping this can just resolve itself with him not being kind of an influential voice in politics anymore.’”
And Facebook’s Nick Clegg, who’s driving much of Facebook’s policy here, knows as well as anyone that political fortunes can change. He was once the future British prime minister. Now he’s living in California and working for Mark Zuckerberg.
Eighteen months from now, the question of whether Trump’s words need to stay banned might be moot.
WHAT ABOUT “UNCLE GARY”?
We’ve talked in this space about how Twitter, Facebook, and other social networks are shimmying away from their traditional practice of giving preferential treatment to political leaders. But what we’re not seeing is the companies treating presidents and prime ministers exactly like the rest of us. What it looks like instead is that they’re starting to hold presidents and presidents to a standard premised on the idea that they’re potentially more dangerous than the rest of us.
At the time of the Oversight Board’s May upholding of Facebook’s Trump ban, Megan McArdle, in a Washington Post opinion piece, advocated for an idea suggested by Julian Sanchez of the libertarian Cato Institute. It’s that the Oversight Board shouldn’t treat Trump like any old uncle also calling the election invalid — and vice versa.
[I]f you’re worried about Uncle Gary, it would have been better to simply recognize that a case involving a president of the United States was necessarily sui generis.
I, for one, do worry about the Uncle Garys. You should, too, even if you are skeptical that anyone who voted for Trump is in fact an all-around decent guy.
And this week, that seems to be very much the direction Facebook proper is headed in. Clegg noted that Trump’s being penalized under "heightened penalties for public figures." So unless your Uncle Gary is, say, Gary Johnson, he’s probably safe.
LET’S “FREAKY FRIDAY” THIS
You’ve woken up this morning as Mark Zuckerberg. Congrats. Tell us, what do you do?
“I would ______________________________ Trump. (And then I’d buy a ______________________________.)”
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