Facebook’s “oversight board” has upheld the ban that the service imposed on President Trump in January of this year, while ordering the company to reconsider whether it should be made permanent. Facebook has six months to respond to the instructions. Evidently, having tried to hand responsibility for his toughest decisions over to a faceless panel, Mark Zuckerberg now finds himself back where he began.
Every single part of this story is ridiculous. It is ridiculous that Facebook not only has an “oversight board,” but that it expects its users to consider it a meaningful source of due process, rather than as yet another way for the company to make up the rules as it goes along. It is ridiculous that, having concluded that Facebook’s initial decision lacked justification, that “oversight board” decided to uphold it anyway, and then invited Facebook to come up with a way of making it permanent. It is ridiculous that, in response to this decision, President Trump suggested that the core takeaway is that “Radical Left Lunatics are afraid of the truth,” rather than acknowledging that he has been constantly lying since he narrowly lost his re-election campaign last year, and that his lies risked material damage to our system of government. It is ridiculous that, in part to appease Trump’s rage, a host of conservatives have come to agree that private companies ought to have strict “oversight boards,” and that those boards ought in fact to be run by the federal government. It is ridiculous that Republican politicians such as Mark Meadows and Jim Jordan, both of whom have been members of the “freedom caucus,” are openly musing about damaging corporations such as Facebook that happen to annoy them. And it is ridiculous that, in response to such musings, elements of the government-happy American Left have decided to talk like Milton Friedman about the sanctity of private business. This affair has brought the best out of nobody.
All in all, the saga has provided us with a salutary reminder of the dangers of short-term thinking. Facebook should have known better than to believe that it could limit speech on its platform without setting a terrible and thorny precedent, and its management team should have been wily enough to grasp that the requests for suppression it was fielding were not magically going to cease once the company had taken action against Trump. The Republican Party should have known better than to follow the president down his dangerous and mendacious rabbit hole on the election, and its leaders should not have agreed to forget what they once knew about the limits of government regulation. And conservatives should know better than to pretend that Facebook is a hellscape for right-wing opinions, when it is decidedly not, or to believe that they can turn against private property and the First Amendment in this instance without undermining their other goals. At every stage, everyone involved in this drama could have taken a different course. Thus far, nobody has.
There are many important questions to be answered about the role that social media now plays in our lives, which require careful thought and rigorous debate. But those questions will not be adequately answered if they are subordinated to transient concerns. None of the proposals being bandied around today pass muster. Abolishing Section 230 would make online censorship worse, not better, because it would make sites such as Facebook more, not less, liable for the contents of third-party speech. Classifying Facebook as a “monopoly” or a “common carrier” would achieve nothing more than to permanently redefine both of those concepts, with consequences that would be impossible to anticipate. Regulating Facebook by replacing its terms of service with terms contrived in Washington would almost certainly be unconstitutional, and would likely be detrimental to the goal its champions are trying to advance. And political revenge, of the sort countenanced by Mark Meadows et al.? Well, we all know where that ends.
Ultimately, we are dealing with a cultural problem, of which Facebook is a symptom not a cause. America is often illiberal and reflexive at the moment, so Facebook and its users are, too. Our politics is often facile and tribalistic at the moment, so our debates about politics are, too. Facebook is a mirror that reflects the culture that sustains it. We should not like what we see.