Future Tense

The Facebook Oversight Board Will Soon Rule on the Trump Ban. Here Are the Possible Outcomes.

A hand holds a smartphone with the Facebook app, against a background of Facebook logos.
= CHRIS DELMAS/Getty Images

This article originally appeared in Tech Policy Press.

On Wednesday, the Facebook Oversight Board will announce its decision on whether to reinstate former U.S. President Donald Trump.

Trump was banned after he incited the violent insurrection at the U.S. Capitol on Jan. 6. That day, he posted on Facebook a statement saying that his supporters should “remember this day forever” and that “these are the things and events that happen when a sacred landslide election victory is so unceremoniously & viciously stripped away from great patriots who have been badly & unfairly treated for so long.”

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Facebook CEO Mark Zuckerberg at the time noted that the restrictions on Trump’s account related to the heightened risk of violence or disruption during the transition period. The decision will have implications for other world leaders and potentially for the future of content moderation on Facebook and on social media more generally. If reinstated, Trump will regain a key platform to communicate and potentially launch a bid for reelection in 2024.

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Here are four possible outcomes.

Trump Reinstated, No Policy Changes Recommended

Possible rationales:

• Danger has passed

• Transition of power complete

• Trump no longer in office

• Very narrow consideration of the question—Jan. 6 posts on their own were non-violative

Possible implications:

• Facebook Oversight Board favors return to status quo on world leaders policy

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• Favors speech over threats to democracy, human rights

Trump Reinstated, Policy Changes Recommended

Possible rationales:

• Danger has passed, but company needs to refocus on human rights

• Facebook made mistakes in prior moderation decisions, policies too vague

• Newsworthiness policy disputed

Possible implications:

• FOB determines extenuating circumstances no longer exist

• May come with warning of more stringent content moderation

Trump Ban Maintained, No Policy Changes Recommended

Possible rationales:

• Danger still extant, or Jan. 6 posts violative

• Connects dots to prior behavior on site, including during BLM protests

• Focuses on proportionality and concerns over human rights

Possible implications:

• FOB determines extenuating circumstances persist

• Defers to company to make decisions on such issues in the moment

• Major implications for other world leaders

Trump Ban Maintained, Policy Changes Recommended

Possible rationales:

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• Danger still extant, posts violative

• Facebook made mistakes in prior moderation decisions

• Newsworthiness policy disputed, major refocus on human rights principles

Possible implications:

• FOB determines extenuating circumstances persist

• Signals era of more stringent moderation

• Major implications for world leaders

The Oversight Board, a relatively new, quasi-independent Facebook construct that has already ruled on a number of cases, will itself face extreme scrutiny in the wake of its decision.

No matter what, a number of key questions will likely remain, as Dipyan Ghosh and I wrote in February. A key one will be what evidence is provided to substantiate the Oversight Board’s decision. Despite providing 9,000 comments ahead of the decision, the “public” has no access to the necessary details to gauge whether the Oversight Board made the right decision, regardless of what it decides. While Facebook has recently made more data available to researchers through special programs, there is simply not enough known about how a leader like Donald Trump has used the platform and how the network has changed as a result of his presence. For the public to comment, let alone understand, it needs the facts, or else the value of its input is necessarily limited.

“Given the implications of these decisions, we as a society have a right to transparency about how they made those decisions, the standards they adopted, the evidence they found persuasive, etc.,” wrote David Kaye, a law professor and former U.N. Special Rapporteur on freedom of expression.

No matter the outcome in Wednesday’s decision, how to enable such transparency will remain a crucial issue.

Future Tense is a partnership of Slate, New America, and Arizona State University that examines emerging technologies, public policy, and society.

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