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“This will set off an avalanche,” said Jon Schweppe, director of policy and government affairs for the right-wing think tank American Principles Project.
“It puts them in a really insane situation where everyone is going to scream,” for Trump and other politicians’ posts to be kept or removed, he added.
It shouldn’t be like that. Facebook has long rejected the notion that it or any private company should be the arbiter of what government officials can and cannot say online. As of 2016, the social media giant has had a policy to uphold statements from influential users – including politicians – that it deems newsworthy, even if it violates its content rules. Facebook has relied on this policy to allow inflammatory or misleading posts from politicians.
The tech giant has also sometimes eased back pressure, including from liberal lawmakers, to more vigorously tackle more harmful posts from public officials. In 2019, Facebook boss Mark Zuckerberg gave a defiant speech in 2019 in which he rejected calls to review false advertisements from politicians, an act he viewed as an affront to “freedom of expression”.
“In general, I don’t think it’s right for a private company to censor politicians or news in a democracy,” Zuckerberg said in a public address at Georgetown University. There were exceptions, yes, said Zuckerberg at the time, even if there was a risk of inciting violence. But, by and large, “people should decide what is believable, not tech companies”.
And in 2020, the tech giant took its biggest step yet to distance itself from decisions about politicians’ speech by creating an oversight body to make the final call on high profile cases, including those involving political leaders.
But now Facebook is ready to have more skins in the game than it has in years.
The social media giant said Friday that Trump could be back on his platforms as early as January 7, 2023, two years after Facebook indefinitely suspended him for praising his supporters when they opened the Capitol one day previously stormed during a fatal rampage. But it’s not guaranteed, and whether or not he returns it will be Facebook’s call.
Nick Clegg, Facebook’s vice president of global affairs, said in a blog post announcing the move that the company would assess whether “the risk to public safety has decreased” before Trump is reinstated. And if the company gets him back, Trump could face further suspensions or even a permanent ban if he breaks the company’s rules again, Clegg said. This means that Facebook will be back exactly where it didn’t want to be: making decisions about which words from a prominent politician are allowed.
And those already high profile calls could come as Trump prepares for another run at the White House. Trump even raised the specter of a 2024 offer to beat up Facebook’s decision on Friday, saying he would not dine privately with Zuckerberg again the “next time I’m at the White House.”
“If he gets back in the run, this situation will be exponentially more difficult with questions of fairness and … all the traditional things people kind of think about trying not to weigh in on an election,” said Katie Harbath. a former Facebook public policy director who served in the 2008 campaign for Trump ally Rudy Giuliani.
Facebook’s announcement of Trump’s decision is already becoming a political lightning rod. Liberal activists and civil rights groups beat the company Friday for failing to permanently boot Trump from the platform, saying his return would pose a threat to democracy.
“A two-year ban brings us beyond the 2022 election cycle, but does not protect Americans from meddling in the next presidential election, which is why Facebook should and can ban Trump permanently,” said Jim Steyer, CEO of Left-Leaning Media of Common Sense.
MP Frank Pallone (DN.J.), chairman of the powerful energy and trade committee, said Facebook’s two-year ban was “not good enough”.
“Any other user would have been completely blocked” he tweeted.
Republicans, meanwhile, are annoyed that the party’s most prominent politician will be muzzled on the podium during the 2022 election if they hope to retake Congress.
“We see this as interference in the election,” said Schweppe. “Donald Trump is the most influential figure on the right, so his cancellation from the platform has a huge impact on the course of the midterms.”
Representative Lauren Boebert (R-Colo.) quipped on Twitter: “Facebook has suspended President Trump until the mid-term elections. There is nothing to see here, folks. “
Facebook’s role in policing other politicians could also soon become much more difficult. The company said Friday it would no longer consider its statements newsworthy and thus would not be automatically protected from the company’s policy against harassment, hate speech and more.
The lifting of this protection by Facebook is certain to lead to further arguments with the Republicans, who have long accused the platform of removing disproportionately too many of their posts. But it will also force the company to make more high-profile phone calls about whether what politicians say is against their rules – decisions that have led to an in-depth scrutiny of the full ideological spectrum.
“It’s going to create a significant number of difficult decisions because there are many leaders and politicians saying controversial and potentially problematic things,” said Paul Barrett, associate professor of law at New York University who specializes in content moderation.
But whether or not Facebook actually has to make decisions about a flood of political posts will depend on how the company enforces its new guidelines and how far it interprets the exceptions contained in these rules.
The company said that while politicians’ statements will no longer be given charter by default, they may still be exempt from penalties for newsworthiness. Barrett said if Facebook makes this exception widespread, there may not be much change in the policy change.
However, if the company cracked down on inflammatory posts from politicians, Barrett argued that more executives could suffer the same fate as Trump.
“If Facebook takes this seriously, I believe it will result in any number of political figures being removed from the United States or around the world,” he said.