What Facebook should do: Let Trump back, and let him lie

by Editorial Team

(Washington Insider Magazine) – Last week, the independent oversight board that Facebook hoped would help solve its Donald Trump conundrum dropped the hot, steaming problem right back in the company’s lap. While the outside arbiters deemed the former president’s suspension correct at the time — on the ground that, yes, he was encouraging a riot when he praised the Capitol insurrectionists on Jan. 6 — they dinged the online giant for making the exile indefinite. Either remove the offending material with a date-certain return, or bounce the offender for good, they pronounced; putting Trump in purgatory is a craven and unprincipled dodge.

That’s all correct, and it sends Facebook back to square one in more than one way. The biggest: Suppose it chooses to reactivate Trump’s account, and on day one he calls the 2020 election “The Big Lie,” as he has taken to doing, and Joe Biden an illegitimate occupant of the office. That is a whopping, antidemocratic, and we’d say anti-American falsehood. Should a man with a massive megaphone get to spread such poison on the internet’s biggest platform?

We say yes.

To be clear, this is isn’t a question of rights. While Trump has the freedom to spout corrosive mistruths on his own time and website, Facebook is a private company with the legal latitude to set community guardrails that promote civility. While it isn’t liable in court, like a publisher is, for everything that appears on its servers, it currently, and properly, prohibits harassing language, incitement, violent and graphic content, certain forms of hateful and dehumanizing speech, and very limited types of disinformation, like anti-Semitic Holocaust denialdeliberately vote-suppressing falsehoods about voting times and polling places, or mistruths about vaccines, which damage public health.

The question here is not about rights, but about the proper course of action for a corporation with billions of members spread across hundreds of countries sharing a gazillion text posts and growing numbers of videos every second: Should it bounce lies or chronic liars, and should the standards be different for an ordinary member and a former president with a few million followers?

Down that road leads nowhere good. Facebook hosts groups that believe the Earth is flat. It hosts groups that believe the universe was created in six days. It hosts individuals who say all manner of disprovable nonsense every day, not only about the 2020 election but about taxes and immigrants and history and Black Lives Matter and police officers and Barack Obama and Israel, and about having just grown the biggest tomato in the county. While Facebook should arm users with better tools to use their judgment to tell fact from fiction, expecting its employees and algorithms to systematically ferret out a flood of alleged and actual inaccuracies is folly, and the workload would no doubt inhibit its attempts to police more harmful content.

And while it’s well and good to label politicians’ glaring falsehoods with a prominent asterisk, the bar for banning speech or speakers should be no higher or lower when folks with massive followings engage in calumny. Biden falsely claimed the new Georgia voting law “ends voting hours early,” among other things. It is a fact that he lied, just as he made other untrue claims in his first 100 days. While Trump lied, and lies, far more often and far more corrosively, the same ground rules should apply to him.

Imagining 1998 occurred today, would Facebook be wise to purge or penalize Bill Clinton for saying he “did not have sexual relations with that woman, Ms. Lewinsky”? That falsehood was vital public record, as was the 2013 Politifact Lie of the Year, Barack Obama’s “If you like your health care plan, you can keep it.”

It’s up to the internet giant to decide whether to reinstate Trump. We think that a platform that lets other liars, both right- and left-wing, routinely have their say should do so. If it does, and he incites violence again or makes racist or dehumanizing statements, those should be blocked, and he can be bounced entirely should such conduct persist. But forget about making mere lies, even big and bad ones broadcast to millions, disqualifying.


Related Posts