No one has set any clear standard about how badly a politician can break Facebook’s rules before getting kicked off the platform, and yesterday the company’s wannabe court missed a chance to fill the void. In a decision anticipated with the fervor that might attend a high-profile Supreme Court ruling, the Facebook oversight board told the platform that, while it might have been right to ban then-President Donald Trump on January 7 for his role in stoking the Capitol riot and because of the risk of continuing violence, the ongoing “indefinite” nature of the ban is not justified. The board gave Facebook six months to go back to the drawing board and work out what to do with Trump’s account now.
But this is the exact question Facebook had asked the board to settle. The board respectfully declined. In fact, the board’s decision resolved essentially nothing—except that Facebook wasn’t exactly wrong on January 7—and leaves open the possibility that this whole charade will happen again before the year is out.
The oversight board is a weird creature. It has no mandate beyond that which Facebook deigns to give it. Its decisions arguably affect free speech, but not in the legal sense, because they implicate only a single private social-media platform. The board is like a moot court in a state without real courts, or a model United Nations in a world with no United Nations. And yet the oversight board was the only public-facing deliberative body contemplating what Ben Smith of The New York Times described as “one of the most important questions in the world.”