Looming Trump ban ruling is a distraction from Facebook's real oversight crisis

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Marietje Shaake, Opinion contributor
·4 min read
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The Facebook Oversight Board’s verdict on whether to reinstate Donald Trump’s account is expected soon. Everyone is weighing in, from Bill Gates to Donald Trump himself. The decision has been breathlessly followed by some journalists as if it were a Supreme Court ruling; which I wish it was, because independent oversight over the outsized power of Facebook is desperately needed. Instead, we are watching a self-regulated facade of accountability. The internal Facebook processes should not distract from the need for independent, external oversight based on democratically mandated rules.

Since Trump’s account was banned, first by Twitter and then by Facebook, the question of whether this was a good or bad decision has dominated the public debate. Often the answers are more informed by people’s opinion about the person of Donald Trump, rather than by a deeper concern about the private power of an advertising company. This power does not only manifest itself by banning the world’s most notorious account. It is also at play through the facilitating of a giant platform and loud megaphone for its famous user, during the vast majority of his divisive presidency. And of course, Trump is not the only Facebook user.

Calling for responsible behavior

The very business models that help amplification of hate speech, the matchmaking between individual conspiracy theorists, the pay for play curation of information, and - lest we forget - the massive data collection of very personal details should be at the heart of this discussion. Incident after incident reveals new harms to public health, public safety and democratic resilience. It is tempting to respond to each incident, or to stay stuck in the American First Amendment mantra, but that misses the pattern that emerges.

Facebook logo at Nasdaq on March 29, 2018, in New York City.
Facebook logo at Nasdaq on March 29, 2018, in New York City.

In proportion to the massive amounts of rankings, groups and advertisements, the Oversight Board is only empowered to offer its thoughts on a fraction of cases. Meanwhile, as we debate the Trump ban, insurrectionists still post on the site while anti-Vax disinformation flourishes. It’s worth noting that even in “banning” Trump, Facebook has left all of his previous content live on the platform. In that way, unlike Twitter, the public is free to engage with the former President’s dangerous content even if he never posts again.

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In September, I became a founding member of a body called the Real Facebook Oversight Board, which started to call for responsible behavior by Facebook in the run up to the 2020 US election. Since then, we continue to call for greater responsibility, and less arbitrary decisions. The fact that Steve Bannon, who suggested the beheading of Dr. Fauci, is still a welcome member of the Facebook club is why our work is not done. But, to avoid any possible confusion, we do not claim to be a substitute for democratic regulations, checks and balances either. In fact, we call for them!

Societal harms from the lack of accountability and oversight

"Not really impressed by all the positive takes on the @OversightBoard. Also not impressed with the @FBoversight. Both are distractions," Jillian York tweeted after the first batch of assessments by Facebook’s Oversight Board were published. I agree. The core issue is that commercial technology platforms, the massive advertising giants, are too powerful. Their design, algorithmic amplification and governance decisions are optimized for profit; goals they successfully achieve.

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But the societal harms from the lack of accountability and oversight in its slipstream are long past the crisis point. As we await whether 5 Facebook Oversight Board members will agree with Facebook’s decision to remove the megaphone from Donald Trump’s online presence, let’s urge lawmakers in Washington to ensure true, systematic transparency and accountability, in equal proportion to the power of Facebook.

Marietje Shaake is the international policy director for the Stanford Cyber Policy Center and president of the Cyber Peace Institute. She is a founding member of the Real Facebook Oversight Board.

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This article originally appeared on USA TODAY: Facebook ban on Trump and the need for oversight and responsibility