Facebook’s decision to keep former president Donald Trump’s account suspended until January 2023 allows the social media giant to kick the can down the road yet again. But for the nation and the world, at least, it makes the next couple of years incrementally more peaceful and less crazy.
The suspension could be extended if “there is still a serious risk to public safety” from Trump’s Facebook and Instagram accounts, the company said in a statement. But Nick Clegg, the former British deputy prime minister who serves as Facebook’s vice president for global affairs and communications, said during an interview that the expectation is that Trump will indeed be allowed back onto the platforms after he has served his sentence in the timeout chair.
Trump’s offense was to post his praise of the Jan. 6 insurrectionists while they were still violently storming the Capitol. His day-in-day-out pattern of outrageous lies, ridiculous claims and tendentious misinformation was not the issue, Clegg said. But egging on rioters as they brutalized police officers and threatened to lynch then-Vice President Mike Pence was serious enough to warrant the most serious of a new set of “heightened penalties for public figures” — suspensions ranging from one month to two years — that Facebook outlined on Friday.
“We can only react to the posts that we saw on that day and associated with those events at the Capitol,” Clegg said.
Friday’s action still doesn’t fully deal with the Trump Problem, though. After the insurrection, Twitter simply banned him permanently. Facebook put off a final decision for another 19 months — and even then, is outsourcing some determinations of responsibility.
Facebook CEO Mark Zuckerberg and his top executives first tried to hand the problem to the company’s blue-ribbon Oversight Board of outside eminences, but last month the board handed it back. The board noted in its report that Facebook had refused to provide information about how its algorithms might have amplified false stolen-election claims that fueled the Capitol riot.
Clegg said a separate outside panel — this one made up of academics — is analyzing that data and will make a report. At some point. Nobody quite knows when.
That may be the bigger issue. Facebook has 2.8 billion regular users and Instagram has about 1 billion. The platforms’ algorithms can promote content, increasing the likelihood that it will go viral, or “demote” it and slow its spread. Trump-generated and Trump-inspired disinformation has often spread like wildfire on Facebook and Instagram, despite the company’s attempts at fact-checking. Did any significant organizing efforts for Jan. 6 take place on Facebook? I’d like to know the answer as soon as possible. Zuckerberg and his company seem in no great hurry.
Clegg said he was aware that Facebook will inevitably be criticized — both by Trump critics who believe he should have been banned for life and by supporters who claim that his “free speech” rights are being violated. The wailing and moaning on Fox News will likely drown out the clamor of the cicadas here in Washington.
Other important politicians around the world have been uneasy about Trump’s suspension, Clegg said. Even some who can’t stand Trump are concerned that an important line of communication to their constituents can be severed if their words are seen to violate Facebook’s policies.
The central fact of Facebook’s hybrid nature remains unresolved. It is a platform, on which users create and disseminate the content. But it sets rules and it removes content — or bans users — that violate those rules. Which is more like a publisher behaves. The company has recently been running television ads begging Congress to set some rules within which social media can operate.
“Would it not be better in the end for democratically elected legislators to make these adjudications and these judgments, because they’re difficult judgments, rather than a private company?” Clegg asked. “Yes. Hundred percent. Yes.”
Perhaps you can imagine this Congress formulating a comprehensive scheme of Internet regulation within the next couple of years, but I can’t. And meanwhile, Trump stews at Mar-a-Lago, reportedly telling his sycophants and hangers-on that he will somehow be “reinstated” as president in August. He won’t be able to post this nonsense on Facebook or Instagram, fortunately. But why would anyone think he will be any less unmoored from reality two years from now?
Those months will pass quickly, so enjoy the respite. Tick, tick, tick ...
Distributed by The Washington Post Writer’s Group.