After a hearing on Twitter’s shadow banning in 2018, senator Marco Rubio was speaking to the press when a gruff voice off camera said,
“Republicans are acting like it isn’t happening. Trump is.”
After being ignored and told not to touch Rubio, the voice returned.
“You won’t silence me.”
It’s the kind of voice every high school bully has after the age of 30, one which makes you instantly think “let’s get out of this bar before he grabs a billiard ball.” It’s the kind of voice that still uses homophobic slurs as much as it talks about fantasy football, a special voice you won’t hear on Facebook, YouTube, or Twitter anymore, memes aside. It’s the voice of Alex Jones, alt-right master, purveyor of conspiracy theories. It’s a voice banned on almost every major platform.
Three years later, all major social media platforms have suspended Donald Trump’s accounts for inciting the January 6th insurrection at the Capitol. Facebook’s Oversight Board, often called the Supreme Court of Facebook, is deciding whether to permanently suspend Donald Trump’s account, find some less strict punishment, or simply unban him. The latter options are both mistakes. Alex Jones’s censorship and eventual ban provide a road map for why lesser punishments are not good enough.
The two men are not very different. Both spread conspiracy theories. Both hate mainstream media. Both gained massive populist fans from the Obama era and claim to be outsiders. In 2015, Trump went on Jones’s show, Infowars, and said, “Your reputation is amazing. I will not let you down.”
These men are brothers from the same populist monster, but it is important to recognize that their suspensions from social media differ in crucial ways.
First, the reasons for their suspensions differ. Trump incited an insurrection. It was violent and intended to stop the peaceful transition of the Trump presidency to the Biden campaign. There’s evidence some Capitol rioters intended to harm congress members. Facebook says Jones was suspended for hate speech, but many will remember the true controversy: Jones spread a conspiracy theory that the parents of the children killed at Sandy Hook were paid actors and the shooting never happened (the parents received death threats from Jones’s fans).
On paper the reasons look very different. One encouraged the violent occupation of the Capitol building, threatening America’s democratically elected representatives and the staff working that day; the other spread a conspiracy theory directly attacking grieving parents. We should not minimize what Jones did. By making his fans believe the parents were part of a globalist agenda to take away their guns, he put targets on their backs. Both Jones and Trump have committed acts which completely warrant permanent suspension.
Second, the president is not treated the same as an online fringe media man because of their separate statuses. While both routinely get laughed off by critics as crazy, social media giants have given Trump a large platform as a presidential candidate and while in office. It should also be said that banning a former leader who was democratically elected from a social media platform is different from banning a conspiracy theorist. Many believe Trump should not be banned because of his status. Really his status means he needs to be banned. Citizens like Jones can be banned indefinitely, so wealthier and more influential people like Trump should be banned too. Trump also has a much larger audience than Jones meaning the damage is greater when he posts volatile messages.
Finally, the Facebook Oversight Board, which is relatively independent from Facebook, was not created until two months after Jones’ suspension and only started hearing cases in 2020. The Board is made up of human rights activists, journalists, a former prime minister of Denmark, lawyers and judges. It usually hears appeals about posts taken down by Facebook’s team of 15,000 content moderators. The Board decides whether a post is hate speech or not, if it is an incitement of violence or not. In January, Facebook asked the Board to decide the fate of Trump’s account.
This is the largest case the Board has faced. Flooded by pro Trump comments as well as articles calling for his permanent ban, whatever decision they make will be controversial. Outside of the Trump case, a Twitter account, “The REAL Facebook Oversight Board” has been the Board’s largest critic. In January, the account criticized the Board’s decision to allow an Islamophobic post made in Myanmar even in the wake of the Rohingya genocide. The Board is definitely not a panacea to Facebook ills, but it is not all bad either. In another decision they upheld the take down of a post referring to Azeri people by a slur. A recent case decided posts can show female nipples if it educates about the signs of breast cancer.
No one knows how the Board will decide Trump’s case, but recently, Alan Rusbridger, a former editor at the Guardian and Board member, told Tech Crunch without directly referencing the case, “What happens if… you didn’t want to ban somebody for life but you wanted to have a ‘sin bin’ so that if they misbehaved you could chuck them back off again?”
He went on to say this might be “less viral” but it would be a departure from the Board’s decisions so far which are take down or leave up. What he is essentially suggesting is a second chance or Facebook parole.
There is something to be said for second chances. If a teenager or a young adult says something awful, they should not be automatically cancelled. The same goes for older adults who have grown up in different cultures and without the internet. In both cases however, they also need to be told what they are saying is wrong. They deserve a second chance. Trump has already had countless second chances.
In his January 7th statement about the suspension of Trump’s Facebook and Instagram account, Zuckerberg said “Over the last several years, we have allowed President Trump to use our platform consistent with our own rules, at times removing content or labeling his posts when they violate our policies.”
This is by far not Trump’s first offense (as Facebook and the Board clearly know), and it should not be treated as such. He has shown he has no restraint for spreading harmful lies like his suggestion to inject cleaning products. Worst of all, Trump has used his platform to encourage rebellion, xenophobia, and racism. His completely unfounded claims that the election was stolen from him directly incited the insurrection at the Capitol which recently was classified as a ‘coup’ by the Coup d’Etat Project at the University of Illinois. Just as people try to minimize what Jones did when it came to slandering the parents of murdered children, we should not minimize what Trump did in attempting to maintain power after losing an election.
It is unclear why Mark Zuckerberg made the Oversight Board. Perhaps he genuinely wants Facebook to have less power when it comes to censorship. He has expressed regret about the platform’s involvement in the spread of disinformation, but mostly he has content moderators to combat this. The Board could be a scapegoat for each item Facebook censors or is not allowed to censor. Those who are even more skeptical say the Oversight Board is a deliberate tactic to show that the government should not intervene and break up Facebook’s three really big apps (WhatsApp, Instagram and Facebook). The Oversight Board, in the skeptical view, is an attempt to show Facebook can regulate itself without government intervention.
No matter what their intention was, the Board conveniently provides Zuckerberg with an excuse for unbanning Trump. He can easily say that it is no longer his responsibility.
The decision to ban Jones was pre-Oversight Board, but interestingly, Facebook tried similar methods to what Rusbridger suggested. In 2018, The New Yorker’s Evan Osnos wrote, “Facebook experimented with punishments. At first, it ‘reduced’ him, tweaking the algorithm so that his messages would be shown to fewer people, while feeding his fans articles that fact-checked his assertions.”
Facebook tried to “reduce” Jones. It did not work. Everyone already knew his opinions and lies, and he never renounced his conspiracy theories or apologized. Slaps on the wrist will not work when the fans still know what Jones or Trump stand for. Even after these half measures, Facebook’s users and other social media platforms pressured Facebook to finally ban Jones.
Less than a year later, Jones was banned on Instagram for fueling white nationalist theories. A Facebook spokesperson said, “We’ve always banned individuals or organizations that promote or engage in violence and hate, regardless of ideology.”
How does this statement not apply to Trump? He incited the insurrection which resulted in 5 deaths. He emboldened racists by banning Muslim countries and calling Covid 19 a “Chinese Virus” which has encouraged racist aggressions towards Eastern Asian people. He must be held accountable like Jones was.
It is important to note that social media platforms’ responses vary on whether Trump suspension will be permanent or not. Recently, YouTube’s CEO, Susan Wojcicki, said they will unblock Trump after the risk of violence decreases. Twitch, a game streaming platform, temporarily suspended him for hateful conduct in the past but now has suspended his account indefinitely. Twitter, probably the biggest enabler of Trump until 2019 when it started fact checking him, had the strongest response and made their ban permanent. One can only imagine the effect this has on Trump who used the platform throughout his presidency to rant as well as make announcements about national security.
These companies stand to gain if they allow Trump on their platforms. Trump is immensely popular despite his offences, and a platform showcasing him would most likely get a boost of users. After this, other major sites would be pressured to bring back Trump as they continue their economic competition.
Some may believe now that Trump is no longer in office, he is no longer a threat. Unfortunately, last month Trump hinted that he would run in 2024 at the Conservative Political Action Conference. He said, “I may even decide to beat [the Democrats] for a third time,” still perpetuating the lie that he won the 2020 election. He has not changed and will not change.
Censorship of a major political figure like this has never happened before. In history, leaders were exiled like Napoleon after losing to an allied coalition of European countries. On the 11th of April 1814, Napoleon was sentenced to exile on the island of Elba. He was allowed to retain the title of Emperor but had to renounce his former territories for himself and his family.
The decision was controversial: the British protested saying his title should be removed and Elba was too close to Italy and France where Napoleon still had many supporters. It was a yellow-card where they needed a red one. Less than a year later, he returned to Paris with a massive militia.
Giving Trump a yellow-card like Rusbridger suggested would not work how it did not work with Jones. Trump has not once renounced his fans even when they stormed the Capitol. He is a Napoleon, banished to the golf courses of Mar-a-Lago. If he is unbanned from Facebook, he will be able to communicate with his old soldiers on a platform with almost 3 million users whenever he wants.
Who knows when he will try to hop on a boat, rally his troops in the south, and bring them raging back to Washington? The best guess is sometime in 2024. If he loses again, we know what he will do. We need to use the red-card.