In 1st Big Test, Oversight Board Says Facebook, Not Trump, Is The Problem
SCOTT SIMON, HOST:
Facebook has almost 2 billion daily users, more spending power than many countries, and now it even has its own version of Supreme Court to pass judgment on the toughest decisions that it makes about what people can and cannot say on the platform. This week, that court ruled on the biggest question yet, whether Facebook should let former President Donald Trump back onto its platforms. NPR tech correspondent Shannon Bond has been following this story. We ought to note Facebook is among NPR's financial supporters. Shannon, thanks so much for being with us.
SHANNON BOND, BYLINE: Glad to be here, Scott.
SIMON: And help us understand what happened this week.
BOND: Well, as you'll remember, shortly after a pro-Trump mob stormed the Capitol on January 6, Facebook had suspended Donald Trump from Facebook and Instagram. They said he was praising violence, and that broke its rules. In this penalty was an indefinite suspension. And so what it did was it asked this new Oversight Board, this advisory panel that it's created to review big decisions, to decide two things, both if it was right to kick Trump off and if he should be let back on. And so then this week, we heard from the board.
SIMON: And they said?
BOND: Well, the board said the suspension was justified - right? - that Trump did break Facebook's rules. But it said an indefinite suspension is not something that's in Facebook's rulebook, and it goes against human rights principles. So the board says Facebook needs to make a decision. It needs to either ban Trump permanently or put a timeframe on the suspension when he will be allowed back on. Here is board co-chair Helle Thorning-Schmidt - she's a former prime minister of Denmark - in an interview with Axios.
(SOUNDBITE OF ARCHIVED RECORDING)
HELLE THORNING-SCHMIDT: And what we're telling Facebook is that they can't invent penalties as they go along. They have to stick to their own rules.
BOND: And what's more, the board slammed Facebook, actually, for trying to offload this decision to the board. It said that's just not its role.
SIMON: Shannon, does this decision wind up saying more about Facebook than Donald Trump?
BOND: Well, I think, you know, it's really interesting. Like, the board here is getting at a criticism that lots of people have about Facebook - right? - that its decisions seem arbitrary. It's not always clear what its rules are, why they're being applied, if they're being applied fairly. And the board members said, you know, in many cases it's that lack of clarity that's helped fuel these persistent claims we hear that Facebook is politically biased. So I think it is about Facebook. For its part, Facebook says it's going to review this ruling, and it's going to come back with what it calls a, quote, "clear and proportionate action." So we'll sort of wait to see just what it does with what the board has told it.
SIMON: Let's remind ourselves, Facebook created this board to hold itself accountable. Did the board's decision satisfy anyone?
BOND: Pretty much not. For people across the political spectrum, I think this decision seemed to confirm whatever they sort of thought about Facebook and the board beforehand. We've heard from Republicans, like House Minority Leader Kevin McCarthy, who said this is just more evidence of why Big Tech has too much power. You know, Republicans continually accuse these companies of censorship. He says this is why these companies need to be reined in with new laws. And then there are other critics who say, look; just what Facebook is doing with this oversight board, it's just a way of ducking responsibility and that what's really needed is some sort of much more independent accountability.
SIMON: But what would that look like? I mean, after all, it's Facebook's money.
BOND: Right. Well, so for one view of that, I spoke with Rashad Robinson. He heads the civil rights group Color of Change. Here's what he told me.
RASHAD ROBINSON: The question will be, will our elected officials step up and stop allowing this unaccountable single billionaire person to have this type of outsized power in our democracy, in our economy, in our media?
BOND: You know, so what he's saying there is, you know, it's really Congress that needs to step in here, regulate these tech giants, regulate the power of billionaires like Facebook CEO Mark Zuckerberg. You know, and new government regulations, that's something a lot of people are talking about. But, of course, that gets into areas that raise their own thorny questions. I mean, just how much should the government be involved in deciding what people can say online? That's - you know, that is uncomfortable territory for a lot of people.
Now, Helle Thorning-Schmidt of the oversight board, she said she doesn't think governments should be making these calls. She says, yes, people are also clearly unhappy about the companies making these calls. So at least from where she stands, the oversight board may just be the best option.
SIMON: NPR tech correspondent Shannon Bond, thanks so much.
BOND: Thanks for having me.
(SOUNDBITE OF MUSIC)
NPR transcripts are created on a rush deadline by an NPR contractor. This text may not be in its final form and may be updated or revised in the future. Accuracy and availability may vary. The authoritative record of NPR’s programming is the audio record.