This morning an oversight board created by Facebook approved the company’s January decision to indefinitely suspend Donald Trump from its platform, and gave the company six months to clarify the duration of the suspension. The result is a bit of a procedural dodge. There is only one reasonable path available for the company to take: Ban the former president permanently.
The reasons for this are straightforward. In many ways, the question of sanctions for Trump is no different from the theory of how a society sanctions any sort of misbehavior. Understanding how a punishment is generally chosen can help answer the question of what the “right” result for Trump is.
The first concept to consider is that of “general deterrence.” The question here is how to set the sanction at a level that will persuade others not to commit similar acts. Given that not all bad actors are caught, the theory of deterrence is that the penalty imposed must be significant enough to deter others. Put simply, how will the sanctions on Trump impact other political leaders on Facebook? Will it embolden them, or will it give them pause? Permitting Trump to return would tell future leaders that serial falsity is relatively costless. To send the right message, the ban must be permanent.
Next comes the question of “specific deterrence,” or “disablement.” Distinct from general deterrence, this asks whether the speaker needs to be effectively disabled from engaging in prohibited acts in the future. A serial robber cannot rob while he is in prison. So here we look at Trump and his nature and ask whether he is likely to be a repeat offender. The answer seems clear. If Facebook restores Trump to the platform, he will lie again, and when he does, Facebook will have to again banish him from the platform, at least for long enough to prevent him from damaging the next election. (If Trump is reinstated, I recommend saving this article; it’ll be relevant again in a year or so.)
Finally, there is the factor of contrition. To what extent has the actor acknowledged the nature of his prior acts and demonstrated remorse or behavioral adjustment? The greater the contrition, the less severe the sanction. By contrast, in the absence of a clear recognition of culpability and harm, it is reasonable to believe that the actor will repeat the activity even at risk of additional harm. This renders severe sanctions more compelling.
Can anyone looking at these factors seriously doubt what the result should be? Just consider the harm Trump has done with his megaphone. Four months ago, a violent mob stormed the United States Capitol in an attempt to overturn the presidential election. That insurrection was incited by a lie—the lie that the election had been “stolen” and that Trump was the true winner. Far from fading away, that lie has metastasized and become an article of faith among some voters. It has also become a litmus test of loyalty—so much so that one cannot, it seems, continue to hold a position of leadership in the Republican Party unless one is willing to shove the riot down a memory hole and publicly embrace as truth that which is manifestly false. The election lie was spread by many, but the lead proponent was Trump himself. He used Facebook, and other social media to propagate the falsehood—postings that led to violence and death at the heart of American democracy.
At no point has Trump demonstrated contrition, and every signal has indicated that he remains undeterred. Indeed, one can make the argument that Facebook acted too late and with insufficient force. By not banning Trump earlier, Facebook enabled and encouraged more and more brazen posts by Trump and other high-profile speakers precisely because there was no sanction. Given that, does anyone realistically think that if he is allowed back on the Facebook platform, Trump will not return to his fraudulent ways?
If any evidence was needed, on Monday, Trump made clear that he has no plans to refrain from continuing to spread falsity. In response to claims that he was lying about the election, he issued a statement declaring, to the contrary, that the 2020 election itself “will be, from this day forth, known as THE BIG LIE!”
Were this persistent dishonesty just the repetition of a casual lie of no import, it would be of no practical moment. One can, for example, persist in a counterfactual belief that the Earth is flat, and this creates no societal harm. But Trump’s lies are more than that; they are an imminent and persistent danger to democracy itself.
Years ago, considering a question of free speech, Justice Robert Jackson gave voice to a cautionary idea: “The choice is not between order and liberty. It is between liberty with order and anarchy without either. There is danger that, if the Court does not temper its doctrinaire logic with a little practical wisdom, it will convert the constitutional Bill of Rights into a suicide pact.”
He was speaking about government regulation of speech and the dangers that came from the lack of limits. But what he said then is equally true today of commercial social-media platforms and their moderation of the content they host. The platforms are, themselves, the product of a robust liberal democracy in which order and liberty contend daily. The social-media platforms cannot allow themselves to become the germinating soil for the seeds of their very own destruction and that of the society that enabled them. By dodging a final decision and throwing the burden back on Facebook, the oversight board merely postponed the inevitable reckoning.