Scholars, Experts, Advocates Warn Facebook Oversight Board:
Don’t Strike the Match and Let Trump Incite Hate Again
12 February 2021
— Quotes from Leading Experts Following Letter —
To the Facebook Oversight Board,
We represent many of the world’s leading academics, scholars, experts on social media and extremism, civil and human rights activists and journalists. We are deeply concerned that your body is preparing to overturn the ban of Donald Trump from Facebook’s platforms.
We have a simple message: Overturning the Trump ban is an invitation to violence, hate and disinformation that will cost lives and undermine democracy. Don’t strike the match.
We bring two arguments forward:
- A Clear and Present Danger
Our members have been calling for the removal of Donald Trump from your platform for months. The moment President Trump declared “when the looting starts, the shooting starts,” Facebook became an accessory to murder.
President Trump and his allies violated Facebook’s terms of service over and over and over again: Attacking peaceful protest; fomenting violence in American cities; demonizing black and brown people; undermining the results of America’s election and finally inciting the attack on the nation’s capital. Until banning Trump on January 8th, Facebook failed completely to enforce its own rules relative to Trump and his allies.
Donald Trump poses a clear and present danger to democracy and human life. He is unrepentant. He continues to deny the outcome of the election. He has used Facebook to profit from his lies about the election. When social media amplifies his hateful rhetoric and disinformation, it is guilty of collaboration.
Some may say this is an issue of free speech. They are wrong. Donald Trump can do interviews. He can go on Fox News. He can write op-eds or send emails. He has the ability to speak freely to a massive global audience. No one has the inherent ‘right’ to use a social media platform to spread disinformation and incite hate over and over again or have one’s message amplified by algorithms. Any platform that does so is complicit in these acts.
We are concerned this case may be reviewed too narrowly, as a legal matter, ignoring Donald Trump’s history of using the platform to threaten and undermine democracy. The right to free speech does not extend to harming others. There are clear limits and Trump surpassed them years ago.
Some have called you Facebook’s “Supreme Court,” but don’t believe the hype. You’re not a legal body. This is not a legal process. A “free speech” ruling encouraging Facebook to let him back on the platform will send a message to every authoritarian, white nationalist and anti-vaxxer out there: that there are no consequences. Come on back in, the water is great.
Don’t strike the match.
2. This is not a legitimate or even remotely adequate process to address the ongoing harms on Facebook platforms.
As much as we urge you to uphold the ban on Donald Trump, the reality is that if Facebook was doing its job, this is a case that wouldn’t require “oversight.” What else does someone need to do to be banned on Facebook?
Facebook has outsourced its most important job — ensuring that no one is harmed by its product. Facebook’s leadership is using you — the Oversight Board — to evade responsibility, buy political cover and make the hard decisions for them, but the actual situation is worse than that. Facebook is using your board to create the illusion of outsourcing its most important job, while actually doing nothing at all. Facebook has demonstrated no interest in eliminating the flaws in its culture, business model, and algorithms. It just wants us to think it has.
It is using you as a fig-leaf to cover its lack of open, transparent, coherent moderation policies, its continued failure to act against inciters of hate and violence and the tsunami of hate speech, disinformation, and conspiracy theories that continue to flood its platform.
More than ever, this demonstrates why we need independent, democratically accountable oversight. Facebook cannot be trusted to do this and they — nor a board appointed by them — should be allowed to make decisions like these. Real oversight must be combined with other critically needed reforms: laws that change financial incentives for big tech, heavy regulation and a reckoning with the algorithms that are laying waste to democratic society.
We call for transparent, predictable, published standards from Facebook that it enforces consistently, and real, democratically accountable, independent oversight. This is a show trial, obscuring the systemic issues plaguing Facebook. And you are collaborators.
Repealing the Trump ban would be calamitous. We appeal to you to uphold the Trump ban, then step aside so a real and independent oversight board can be established to stop the torrent of hate and misinformation on Facebook’s platforms.
Experts Weigh in On Potential Trump Ban Ruling
“Trump never should have been allowed to use Facebook to spread hate and racism, lies about the election and the pandemic, and incite violence and insurrection. Yet he was, and he violated Facebook’s terms of service on a daily basis. Facebook has a moral and social responsibility to moderate content to disrupt hate and disinformation, and eject people — no matter how powerful — who refuse to play by the rules. Trump and other white supremacist and conspiracy theorist leaders have gotten away with this for far too long. They must be subject to the same standards as the rest of us.The bottom line is this: the proliferation of online hate, racism and disinformation has brought us to the brink. It has threatened the lives of Black and brown people, undermined public health and safety, and jeopardized our democracy. Reinstating Trump would be a big step backward, and would once again put Facebook on the wrong side of history.” — Jessica González, Co-CEO, Free Press
“Society renews itself as common sense evolves. For example, the idea of democracy was at one time a deviation from the norm that then became a force for renewal, — but not all deviations are sources of renewal. Destructive or regressive deviations ‘normally’ remain at the fringe, where they belong. As a democratic people, we need to be able to distinguish between deviations that advance or threaten our fundamental values and aspirations. This requires trustworthy, transparent, respectful institutions of social discourse, especially when we disagree. Instead we are saddled with the opposite — nearly 20 years into a world dominated by an institution that operates as a chaos machine for hire, in which norm violation is good for business.
In America, those who hold freedom of speech as a sacred right typically look to Justice Oliver Wendell Holmes’s 1919 dissenting opinion in Abrams v. United States as a touchstone. Holmes argued that according to the American Constitution, the ultimate societal good is best reached “by free trade in ideas…the best test of truth is the power of the thought to get itself accepted in the competition of the market” of ideas — a free and fair public square.
When it comes to any consideration of Mr. Trump’s banishment from Facebook, the key point is that Facebook is not a public square but a private one — governed by machine operations and their economic imperatives, incapable of, and disinterested in, distinguishing truth from lies or renewal from destruction. Mr. Trump’s corrupt information does not rise to the top of a free and fair competition of ideas. His corrupt ideas are vaulted to center stage in a rigged game where the house always wins. No democracy can survive this game.”— Shoshana Zuboff, author, The Age of Surveillance Capitalism; Professor Emeritus, Harvard Business School
“Yet again, Facebook is attempting to shirk responsibility by giving its Oversight Board, a highly flawed entity, unilateral power to potentially reverse the decision and put Black lives at immense risk — we cannot and we will not validate this illegitimate process. The Oversight Board is a fake solution, as a months-long bureaucratic process is not a substitute for adequate policy enforcement. The Board only serves only as a PR shield for Facebook’s leadership failures — they are allowed to confirm Facebook’s decision or declare content should not have been removed, yet they are prohibited from ruling that Facebook has failed by leaving dangerous and violent content on the platform. In terms of this particular case, the majority of the Oversight Board members who will decide its fate are not even based in the U.S., raising questions about their understanding of the real life dangers Black Americans will face if Facebook allows Trump to fuel violent white nationalists through the platform once again. Trump has used Facebook as a megaphone to stoke hate and incite violence against Black people and our allies for far too long. We simply cannot afford to normalize this misguided attempt at self-regulation.” — Rashad Robinson, President, Color of Change
Facebook cannot allow Donald Trump back on its platform. Trump repeatedly violated Facebook’s rules, spread disinformation, hate, racism and insane conspiracy materials — and incited violence. Even worse, Facebook gave Trump, as a political figure, repeated passes for the horrific material he posted, when it was his exactly his status as a political figure that made the material resonate more strongly, threatening our democracy and making the world more dangerous for us all. The cost has been far too high already, especially for marginalized communities who have borne the brunt of this hate. It’s time to hold Trump and other extremists accountable just like the rest of us. If Trump goes back up, Facebook will have sided with extremism against democracy, further endangering us all. — Heidi Beirich, Co-Founder, Global Project Against Hate + Extremism
“After going to extraordinary lengths to excuse a blatantly anti-Muslim post in Myanmar, the Facebook Oversight Board’s credibility is threadbare. If they again rely on embarrassing technicalities to excuse hate and reinstate Donald Trump’s Facebook page, we will definitely know that the board’s sole purpose is to launder responsibility for Mark Zuckerberg and Sheryl Sandberg. Trump used his Facebook page to promote dangerous conspiracy theories about the election and organize an event that led to a deadly, white nationalist riot in the U.S. Capitol. Before that, his Facebook page has regularly been home to lies, conspiracy theories and hate directed at Muslims, immigrants and other communities of color — all clear violations of Facebook’s content standards that would have gotten anyone else banned from the platform. Donald Trump’s Facebook page has been one of the largest megaphones for white nationalist hate and it will continue being that if his page is reinstated.” — Madihha Ahussain, Special Counsel for Anti-Muslim Bigotry, Muslim Advocates
“By allowing Trump to spread his election lies — directly leading to the attack on the Capitol — Facebook nearly broke our democracy. Trump’s words incited violence and the deaths of at least five people. Facebook allowed month’s of Trump’s election lies because they brought eyeballs, attention and profits to their platform. Trump must be held responsible for his actions. The Facebook Oversight Board must make the ban on Trump permanent to protect our democracy and show others that this kind of hateful and harmful speech will not be tolerated on Facebook.” — Jim Steyer, Founder + CEO, Common Sense Media
“Facebook is a weapon of mass insurrection and democratic destruction, and the Trump ban, though an important step in limiting the risk of violence, should not distract us from the systemic issue about how Facebook’s algorithm boosts Trumps all around the world, and with impunity. We don’t need another private structure, cloaked in fictitious promises of democratic accountability, when we already have publicly elected legislative bodies, which can and should act urgently to regulate social media platforms.” — Meetali Jain, Legal Director, Avaaz
“Shockingly, Facebook continues to allow Trump’s Facebook page and Instagram account to thrive, with tens of millions of followers. At this very moment, Trump’s Facebook and Instagram accounts continue to show thousands of posts and videos in which he spreads countless lies and conspiracies, including the dangerous, antidemocratic and utterly false lie that the 2020 election was ‘stolen.’ In many of these posts and videos, Trump also urges his supporters to ‘fight for your country’ — the same kind of inflammatory language that helped incite the January 6 attack on the Capitol. Every day that Trump’s Facebook and Instagram accounts remain active and accessible to millions of people is a day that Facebook is helping to radicalize extremists, embolden white supremacists, and undermine our democracy.” — Jonathan A. Greenblatt, CEO, ADL
“Facebook’s initial decision to suspend Donald Trump came only after he had done incalculable damage to our democracy, our electoral process and the health and safety of our government officials. It came after years of harassment of individuals and incitement to violence on the platform, all of which were clear breaches of Facebook’s very clear Terms of Service. Despite these violations, Facebook opted to continually bend their rules to avoid raising the ire of the President, but what we all saw on January 6th was that this delay, at least in part, resulted in a horrific insurrection at the Capitol building that resulted in the deaths of 8 people. This matter, according to Facebook’s own rules, has already been litigated. Trump, without question, broke Facebook’s rules. If what the company says is true, their rules are supposed to be equally applied to all users across the platform. What the Oversight Board is now ruling on is not whether the rules were broken, it’s ruling on whether they should be bent once again.” — Matt Rivitz, Founder, Sleeping Giants
Facebook intentionally and recklessly scaled to dominate our public square, but now they outsource the responsibility for enabling and spreading hate and violence to an unelected, unaccountable, hand-picked group of individuals they assembled into this Oversight Board. If the board insists on continuing with this case, they must not deliberate based only on the two posts that Facebook says were the violations, as opposed to considering Trump’s more egregious policy violations over the years and the broader context of the effect on actual lives and our democracy, or they will prove the entire process to be a dangerous sham. No matter what the board decides, it will not address the larger issue of the business decisions and negligence that make Facebook ripe for disinformation and political manipulation to begin with. Facebook must be held accountable for the consequences of their own decisions. —Yael Eisenstat, Former Facebook Elections Integrity Lead and Visiting Fellow, Cornell Tech’s Digital Life Initiative